The Times They Are A-Changin’

Cannabis in Morocco

Will the cultivation of cannabis transition from an illegal—or at least a frowned-upon—activity into a respectable multi-billion-dollar business in 2022?

Cannabis in Morocco? As in most countries in the MENA region, Morocco has for many years had a rather tough formal stance on narcotics, including so-called soft drugs such as cannabis and its various derivatives. Since Morocco’s independence in 1956, at times, one could find themselves in serious trouble if they were arrested with some marijuana on their person. In 1974, the nation reviewed its anti-drug policy and came to the conclusion that cannabis and its derivatives deserve to remain banned and the cultivation, sale, or consumption of thereof should remain a criminal offense.

However, just around the same time, the law enforcement personnel adopted a more easygoing stance on cannabis, compared to hard drugs whose sale and consumption was—and still is—punished severely. The informal easygoing stance on marijuana may be rooted in the culture: Morocco has an ideal climate and sunlight for the cultivation of the cannabis plant, and, therefore, cannabis was freely grown in the region in premodern times, especially in the Rif region.

What is more, the consumption of cannabis and its most famous derivative in the Arab world, hashish, are not strictly banned in Islam in the same way that alcohol is. As such, in a traditional nation such as Morocco, no one has been able to prohibit the plant and its recreational use on religious grounds. There are historic records pointing that since as early as the 16th century, Morocco has been a leading producer of marijuana.

Since the 1970s until recently, foreign and local cannabis enthusiasts in Morocco found themselves in a strange situation: the growing, trade, and consumption of cannabis was prohibited according to Moroccan law, but that law was rarely enforced. Foreign travelers in cosmopolitan places such as Casablanca have always been able to get their hands on some high-quality marijuana or hashish, perhaps only a few minutes after their arrival, and they often consumed the aforesaid substance to their heart’s content without getting into much trouble. Elder locals may still remember the influx of Western travelers, at the peak of the counterculture movement in the West, who came to Morocco mainly to smoke cannabis for recreational purposes. Was a law true a law in Morocco if the Royal Moroccan Gendarmes were not willing to go out of their way to enforce it?

The law against the cultivation of cannabis had been so leniently enforced in recent years that by the middle of the 2010s, it was estimated that Morocco was the world’s undisputed market leader in the cultivation and supply of cannabis and its derivatives. Finally, and after a wave of the legalization of marijuana in Canada, the US, and parts of Europe, Moroccan lawmakers decided to follow suit. In May 2021, they voted in favor of legalizing cannabis, after the government presented parliament with a bill to legalize the cannabis industry as long as the substance was used for medical, cosmetic, or industrial purposes. Although the bill was passed successfully, its finalization is pending the approval of His Majesty King Mohammed VI. Nevertheless, the cultivation and trade of cannabis is now tolerated more than ever by the authorities.

Parliament has, by and large, made a good decision. Cannabis and hashish already existed in the country prior to the legalization campaign in surprisingly large quantities, and the legalization will enable law enforcement officers to oversee the supply chain of cannabis, making sure that it is not sold to underage buyers. The health authorities, meanwhile, can make sure that the cannabis derivatives in the market are exactly what they are advertised to be. Above all, however, the government will be able to tax growers and suppliers of cannabis like every other business in the country.

After all, the production of marijuana has always been a highly profitable business in Morocco. Over 70% of the hashish consumed in Europe in 2003 was originating from Morocco, and the taxation of such a huge volume of cannabis derivatives can be a significant source of income for the government. With the decriminalization of the cannabis sector in 2021, exports will undoubtedly grow. As of 2021, some 75,000ha of farmland in Morocco is used to grow cannabis.

It is worth noting that these farmlands are not of much use for the cultivation of any other crops or plants, and, therefore, the legalization of cannabis can have profound ramifications on the nation’s agricultural sector. By cultivating the cannabis demanded by foreign tourists and overseas markets, the cannabis growers of the Rif region are injecting millions of euros of foreign exchange into the Moroccan economy.

2022 will be extremely decisive for the future of the cannabis trade in Morocco, and chances are that legalization will finally come into effect by 2022, fetching as much as EUR10 billion each year. It is still unclear, however, which regions and farmers will receive a formal license to grow the plant and whether cannabis consumption inside the country will be tolerated by the Royal Gendarmerie.

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