Morocco to legalise cannabis?

Morocco may be about to follow Colorado and Washington by legalising cannabis. Morocco has a population of over 32 million people, and is Africa’s sixth largest economy. What impact could legalisation have, and what might the future hold?

The majority of cannabis farming occurs in the north of the country in the Rif Mountains, and the growing season lasts from March to early September. According to historians, cannabis resin powder in Morocco is produced using methods that have only been in use since the early 1960s, but records go back further. In contrast with areas like South Asia, cannabis cultivation in Morocco is relatively recent, dating back to the invasions of the seventh century A.D., but in all probability it didn’t reach the Rif Mountains until the fifteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the official right to grow it in the Rif Mountains was granted; tolerance then continued aside from a brief period from 1921 to 1926 when local people broke away and opposed cannabis cultivation and consumption. After the locals were opposed and defeated, tolerance returned and led to current attitudes, despite the declaration of a ‘war on drugs’ in 1992 by the then King Hassan II. At the present time, most farmers have patches of land for marijuana cultivation that typically occupy a few square metres.

Legalisation could boost exports, and reduce Morocco’s trade deficit-which reached 197 billion dirhams in 2012, approximately 23% of gross domestic product. The country has also been adapting to changing political circumstances in the wider geopolitical region; the Arab Spring uprisings toppled regimes across the Middle East. Many in favour of the move to legalise cannabis feel the decision would bring stability, increased levels of prosperity and boost the fortunes of ruling politicians in the Islamist-led government, by proposing legalisation--a forward-thinking and positive radical policy position. In addition, opposition support for the measure gives stronger impetus for party leaders to begin talks to implement the policy.

The proposal would directly seek to end the black market, and end existing harms to growers; forced to sell to the black market, growers do not necessarily get a fair price for their crop, and are endangering themselves by selling within a criminalised market. The shift in approach to drug policy comes after the authorities waged a campaign against cannabis farmers prior to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings; areas growing cannabis were drastically reduced from 137,000 hectares in 2003 to just 47,000 hectares at the end of the campaign. The authorities encouraged farmers to plant orchards and grow olives and almonds. Typically, these sell for between 70 and 100 dirhams a kilo; annual sales of marijuana in Morocco are estimated to at $10 billion. For farmers trying to make a living and provide for their families and communities, it is easy to see why many--an estimated 800,000--choose to cultivate cannabis instead. In addition, the area including the Rif Mountains has the highest rates of poverty and illiteracy amongst girls in the whole of Morocco.

A progressive policy on cannabis is clearly in the interests of people living in Morocco, and a signal that the move to legalisation is still supported by the second largest party in the government, the nationalist Istiqlal, amid signs of remaining steadfast in supporting a shift in attitudes.