MOROCCO – 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.