Cannabis is king in Morocco, the North African country sitting across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain and holder of the title of world's largest hash exporter. Alternative development programs have closed up shop, government authorities have thrown up their hands, and European hash heads have broken out in smiles as the Moroccan cannabis crop (which is known locally as kif) has exploded in recent years, according to a report this week in The Guardian (UK).
Since 1994, cannabis production has more than quadrupled from 50,000 hectares to almost 250,000 hectares this year. "You now find kif fields clearly visible from the roads, with no attempt made to hide them," said Spanish agronomist Pasqual Moreno, an authority on kif production. From their traditional bases in the Rif Mountains, "the plantations have spread north to the Mediterranean, south toward the Fez and west toward Larache. I have been coming to Morocco for 25 years and I have never seen it like this."
Moreno, who directs the European Union's "alternative cultivation" program in the Rif, told the Guardian the program had essentially folded after failing to convince farmers there to quit growing cannabis. According to the agronomist, almost one million people in the Moroccan north -- one-fifth of the area's population -- make a living from the cannabis crop. They earn 10 to 40 times what they would make growing tomatoes or other legitimate crops, he said.
Government efforts to repress the crop have proven ineffective -- smugglers measure distances by the number of bribes they have to pay -- and Moroccan officials pointed the finger at European consumers and governments. "It is big business and big money. It is a question of supply and demand. And, anyway, how do you fight it, when you see so many European countries legalizing the drug?" one senior official in the capital, Rabat, asked the Guardian.
But while some countries have decriminalized cannabis, Europe has not legalized it, and Moroccans might consider themselves fortunate that that is the case. According to the European Union, Moroccan hash exports are a $2 billion a year business, one that could be ruined if European states actually allowed their citizens to grow their own. "That would be a disaster for the Moroccan north," a European Union official admitted to the Guardian.
And that could lead to new problems for Europe, Moreno suggested. The Rif area is so dependent on the drug economy, he said, that if the bottom fell out of the cannabis market, it could turn to another illicit crop. "This is papaver somniferum and you can buy it in the souk, though it is only used for traditional purposes," he said, holding up a bag of dried poppy heads. That's what you make heroin from.