Morocco wrangles over marijuana fix to help cultivate exports

File - A cat hides behind bundles of marijuana plants at a farmer's house in the Rif region, near Chefchaouen, August 11, 2008. (REUTERS/Rafael Marchante)

Mustapha Tahiri, a cannabis farmer in northern Morocco, looks forward to the day he can sell his crop without worrying about being jailed. If lawmakers in the Islamist-led government have their way, that isn’t too far off. “I’d be a lot happier if the state leaves us alone, stops the arrests and lets us grow the herb,” said Tahiri, a father of seven whose house in the village of Beni Gmil was raided by anti-drug security forces last year. He said he’d be willing to sell his cannabis resin for 7,500 dirhams ($886) per kilo, about half of what he is now getting from middlemen.

At least 800,000 Moroccans live off illegal marijuana cultivation, generating annual sales estimated at $10 billion, or 10 percent of the economy, according to the Moroccan Network for the Industrial and Medicinal use of Marijuana, a local charity. Morocco, with a population of 32 million, is Africa’s sixth-largest economy, according to data from the International Monetary Fund.

Legalization would allow farmers to sell to the government for medicinal and industrial purposes rather than to drug traffickers. That could boost exports and help reduce a trade deficit that widened to a record 197 billion dirhams last year, about 23 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. It could also help pacify inhabitants of an historically restive region after Arab Spring uprisings toppled regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Lawmakers in Prime Minister Abdel-Ilah Benkirane’s Islamist PJD, or Justice and Development party, as well as the opposition Authenticity and Modernity, are considering draft legislation proposed by the Morocco Network. Mohammad Boudra, a member of Authenticity and Modernity and governor of Hoceima-Taounate, the country’s biggest cannabis-producing region, said his party was seeking to enact the bill within three years.

“We have to ensure that any legalization is done in an optimal fashion,” said PJD lawmaker Abdel-Ahim Allaoui. “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.”

Morocco risks losing its investment grade sovereign rating at Standard & Poor’s after an increase in public wages and subsidy spending aimed at maintaining social peace weakened the government’s finances.

Debt as a percentage of GDP rose to more than 60 percent in 2012 from 47 percent in 2009 and the current account deficit is the widest in more than three decades, Finance Ministry data shows.

S&P ranks Morocco one step above junk status and put it on a negative outlook in October 2012. Ahmad Lahlimi, head of the country’s planning agency, said last month that debt is nearing the “danger zone.”

Before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, authorities in Morocco waged a slash-and-burn campaign against cannabis farming that reduced planted areas to 47,000 hectares from 137,000 hectares in 2003, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. They encouraged farmers to instead plant orchards and grow olives and almonds, which sell for between 70 and 100 dirhams a kilo.

Khadija Rouissi, a lawmaker from Authenticity and Modernity, has called for a national debate about the legalization of marijuana.

“We can’t carry on ignoring this big elephant in the room,” she said.

Cannabis farming is largely centered in the country’s northern Rif mountains, where it started centuries ago. Hamlets and villages like Tahiri’s nestle on the slopes, and most farmers in the region have modest marijuana patches of a few square meters. A hectare can yield between 5 and 6 kilos of cannabis resin per year, Tahiri said.

“What we want is to provide a viable alternative for the small farmer and take him out of the drug trafficking equation,” said Chakib Khayari, who heads the Nador-based Moroccan Network. “Then law enforcement will only have drug traffickers to worry about.”

The Rif area has the highest national rates of poverty, maternal deaths and illiteracy rates among girls, according to Boudra, the local governor. GDP per capita in the region is 50 percent of the national average.

King Mohammad VI is seeking to reverse that trend and repair the legacy of his father King Hassan, who neglected the north during his 38-year rule, a period marked by political unrest and violence against opponents, according to the International Center for Transitional Justice.

“We are considered as an unruly bunch living on contraband and illicit trade,” said Mohammad Lagmili, a farmer in Beni Gmil. “That may be true but we have also been marginalized.”

Lagmili grows barley, tomatoes and watermelons 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 said.

The nationalist Istiqlal, the second-largest party in the government, says it still backs the change in the law, even after five of its six ministers said July 9 they were joining the opposition.

“There are villages in the Rif where men are nowhere to be found because they are either in jail or wanted by the police,” said Istiqlal spokesmen Adil Benhemza. “We grow barley and grapes and we make beer and wine. Where is the problem? We should have actually moved on this a lot earlier.”

For Tahiri, who is caring for an ailing mother and struggling with rising food prices, legalization can’t happen soon enough. “We are not giving up the cannabis trade,” he said. “That’s the only thing that works here.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 27, 2013, on page 4.




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