Mustapha Tahiri, a cannabis farmer in northern Morocco, looks forward to the day he can sell his crop without worrying about jail. His country’s legislators may soon grant his wish. “I’d be a lot happier if the state leaves us alone,” says Tahiri, a father of seven whose home in the village of Beni Gmil was raided by government forces last year.
At least 800,000 Moroccans live off what Tahiri calls “the herb.” Illegal marijuana farming generates annual sales estimated at $10 billion, according to the Moroccan Network for the Industrial and Medicinal Use of Marijuana, a nonprofit founded in 2008. That’s equal to 10 percent of Morocco’s economy. “We can’t carry on ignoring this big elephant in the room,” says Khadija Rouissi, a lawmaker from the opposition Authenticity and Modernity Party.
Parliament is considering draft legislation proposed by the Moroccan Network that would legalize marijuana cultivation, allowing farmers to sell their crops to the government rather than to drug traffickers. (While it’s illegal to grow and sell cannabis, Moroccan law says nothing about recreational use.)
Legalizing production could boost exports of marijuana-based products, such as medicines and textiles, helping to reduce a trade deficit that last year widened to a record 23 percent of gross domestic product. “We have to ensure that any legalization is done in an optimal fashion,” says Abdelhalim Allaoui, a lawmaker with the ruling Justice and Development Party. “We need to establish what the medicinal virtues of the plant are and then think of exports, pharmaceutical industry developments, and how to draw foreign investment. This is a promising sector for the economy.” Mohamed Boudra, a member of the opposition and governor of Hoceima-Taounate, Morocco’s biggest cannabis-producing region, says his party seeks to enact the bill within three years.
Cannabis production is centered in the north of the country in the Rif Mountains, which are dotted with tiny farms. The area has the nation’s highest rates of poverty, maternal deaths, and female illiteracy, according to Boudra. GDP per capita is 50 percent of the national average. A hectare can yield between 5 and 6 kilos of cannabis resin—better known as hashish—per year, says Tahiri. Middlemen pay between 10,000 and 15,000 dirhams ($1,195 to $1,780) per kilo, according to interviews with farmers in the area.
Authorities in Morocco have waged a slash-and-burn campaign against cannabis farming that has reduced planted areas to 47,000 hectares from 137,000 hectares in 2003, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Yet efforts to get farmers to switch to crops such as olives and almonds have largely failed.
Legalizing marijuana farming could help King Mohammed VI politically. Since ascending to the throne in 1999, Morocco’s monarch has been working to repair the legacy of his father, King Hassan II, who during his 38-year rule largely neglected the area. “We are considered an unruly bunch living on contraband and illicit trade,” says Mohamed Lagmili, a farmer in Beni Gmil. “That may be true, but we have also been marginalized.” Lagmili grows barley, tomatoes, and watermelon to sell in the local market on a plot near his brick house. Just behind it is a strip of terraced land, planted with cannabis. “You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” he says. For Tahiri, who is caring for an ailing mother and struggling with rising food prices, legalization would make life much easier. “We are not giving up the cannabis trade,” he says. “That’s the only thing that works here.”