Morocco Legalized Cannabis, but Divvying Up Profits Is a High Bar

After generations as outlaws, small farmers across the Rif Mountains are being asked to team up with multinationals to take the North African kingdom’s lucrative crop mainstream

Morocco Legalized Cannabis, but Divvying Up Profits Is a High Bar
A farmer inspects plants in a cannabis field in Azila in Morocco’s Ketama region, at the foot of the Rif Mountains. (Photo by Fadel Senna / AFP via Getty Images)

On a cold morning last January, dozens of men dressed in layers of thick wool robes and coats to keep out the biting cold crowded into the village hall in Bab Berred, a town nestled high in Morocco’s Rif Mountains. The humidity had infiltrated the wall where a framed portrait of King Mohammed VI hung; the peeling paint was hastily covered over with a Moroccan flag in anticipation of the visitors from the capital who were filing into the hall and mounting the dais. There was an uneasy tension in the air as Mohamed El-Guerrouj, polished in a tailored suit and dark-rimmed glasses, took to the podium to address the crowd.

“This is a historic moment for our nation,” he said, before diving into his presentation: a detailed explanation of how, after decades of living as outlaws, the cannabis farmers gathered in the hall that morning could apply for a permit from the state to grow and harvest legally the crop they and their families had relied on for generations.

After criminalizing cannabis farming for six decades, in May 2021 the Moroccan Parliament reversed course, passing a law that lawmakers hoped would open a new era when farmers and the state would collaborate to capitalize on the country’s cannabis potential, worth an estimated $15 billion, for pharmaceutical purposes. The vision — to transform the country’s illicit trade into a sleek, streamlined, medicalized, multinational operation — is the first of its kind in North Africa, where cannabis has for decades been ferried illegally across borders on mules, in small trucks or on Zodiac boats.

El-Guerrouj, a longtime politician with an academic career in agriculture development, was chosen by the palace last year to lead the newly established Moroccan state cannabis agency, which goes by the French acronym ANRAC. Despite his expertise and political goodwill, El-Guerrouj has his work cut out for him: A long history of tension and clashes between farmers and authorities in the Rif — a region viewed as a haven for rebels, opposition figures and outlaws — has left many, including Omar, one of the farmers at the meeting, wary of trusting “the people from Rabat.”

Omar, whose last name we are not using to protect his identity, said his childhood was punctuated by dramatic raids by government forces who would descend on his family’s small holdings in the mountains and burn their crops, destroying a year’s worth of income in a few hours. He said he can still see his father’s helplessness, still hear his mother’s screams and his sisters’ cries. That the same government that forced his family into precarity and labeled them as outlaws now wants to partner with them has left Omar skeptical; he and other farmers worry that they will be cut out of the profits as the system becomes more regulated and multinational organizations control more of the means of production and supply chain.

“We were already barely making ends meet. Now we are scared that things will get worse,” Omar said after the presentation. While he is still wary of the government’s motives and its dedication to sharing the profits, he hopes that, at least, this will be the end of the era of fire and tears.

At parties in Ibiza and in dorm rooms in The Hague, every day tens of thousands of Europeans light up cannabis farmed on the rocky slopes of the Rif. Morocco is the world’s leading producer of hashish, according to the United Nations, and the top exporter to Europe. Exact figures haven’t been recorded since the early 2000s, when the country took measures to restrict cannabis farming in the wake of a series of suicide bombings in the Rif, but estimates put yearly production around 3,000 tons.

“We have gold in our country. But no one was listening to us for years,” explained Moroccan cannabis researcher Abderrahmane Merzouki, who spent three decades studying the potential of the kingdom’s weed, especially the endemic Beldiya strain, which has a light, fruity flavor and a fragrance similar to incense. Its lower levels of THC — the main psychoactive compound in marijuana that gives the “high” — and rich terroir make it a prime contender for the type of artisanal products the kingdom is hoping to produce with its new take on the drug.

Tourists have been tapping into Morocco’s Beldiya goldmine for years, albeit illegally, particularly in towns like Chefchaouen, whose maze of azure alleys has become something of a budget-friendly Santorini for Instagramers, a muse for passionate photographers and a cerulean haven for hash lovers. Around nearly every corner in the small mountain town lurk young men slyly selling hand rolled cigarettes of kif — Beldiya mixed with tobacco — or gummy bricks of hash. “Miss, mister — cannabis?” a young man asked a group of tourists in English as he mimed taking a drag from a joint.

In tucked-away cafes tourists can get a taste of how locals smoke Beldiya — in a long terracotta and wood pipe, interspersed with sips of mint tea. Locals and traffickers (“beznassa”) aren’t shy about hawking their wares; they sing the praises of their local crop to anyone who’ll listen. “Beldiya gives you imagination, the others generate delusions,” said Simo, a young Moroccan rolling himself a joint at a corner cafe.

Beldiya fetches a higher price on the international market than recently introduced and higher-yielding hybrids — up to $1,000 per couple of pounds compared with $200 — but farmers see only a fraction of that money. The bulk of the profits lands in the pockets of smugglers who transport the crop out of the Rif and into markets across North Africa and Europe. For the estimated 90,000 families who rely solely on cannabis crops for their income, the take-home pay is meager.

“Small farmers make a maximum of 20,000 dirhams [$2,000] yearly,” Omar explained.

The new Moroccan law was drafted in large part to stamp out illegal trafficking and reroute the profits from the country’s cannabis to the farmers and the state. But in the Rif, locals have mixed feelings about the traffickers: Some see them as the embodiment of the criminal stereotype that ruined the region’s reputation for decades; others view them as antiheroes who, according to one local in Chefchaouen, “created a strong economy” for the region when the state did not. It’s a familiar dynamic that’s played out in countries across Latin America where coca and cannabis are grown, processed and sold.

There’s still great affection for the region’s own Robin Hood — or perhaps, Pablo Escobar — the drug trafficker Mohammed Al-Rammach. A dual Moroccan-Spanish national, he came up in the rough neighborhoods of Tetouan, a town in the north of the country, and cut his teeth selling illegal tobacco. By the early 2000s, he ran the largest cannabis trafficking ring in the country and controlled the drug trade between Spain and Rabat using Zodiac boats. His arrest in 2003 was heralded by authorities but mourned by some locals in the Rif, where he had for decades whitewashed drug money with generous donations to struggling families and opened businesses that provided work opportunities for locals.

The trafficking rings themselves provide employment to young people in a region where many families struggle and jobs are scarce. Even some small farmers, faced with the rising cost of fertilizers and water for their fields, have abandoned their crops to join trafficking rings, Omar explained. The legalization and regulation of cannabis would disrupt an entire shadow economy — one that, even with the promised profits from the government, could be hard to replace.

There are also no guarantees that the profits from the bright cannabis future that Morocco is projecting will end up in the pockets of those who need it most. The new law, which governs all aspects of cannabis regularization — from cultivation conditions to the import of seeds and the export of products — is light on details about the financial aspects of profit sharing. The ambiguity is fueling frustration and deepening mistrust between the farmers and the government.

ANRAC requires farmers to create cooperatives to sell the crops to certified buyers, such as pharmaceutical companies. Farmers have to give their entire crop to the cooperative to participate, but the agency has yet to announce what the price is per kilogram for their crops, and it has growers nervous. Hamid, a member of the cooperative Ben Amar in Bab Taza, says the agency hasn’t discussed pricing and compensation.

“From traffickers to pharma companies, we are doomed to be the sitting duck in this business,” argued Al-Hajj, a cannabis farmer in his 60s who says he has little trust in the state’s promises.

The dollar value of their crops is one obtuse component of the deal, but farmers say another more worrying element of Morocco’s plan for its cannabis future is the introduction of multinationals to the supply chain. While only farmers will be allowed to import and export seeds and cannabis plants, the transformation of that cannabis into medical, pharmaceutical and industrial goods will be in the hands of larger corporations.

ANRAC told New Lines that only national companies will be granted permits to invest in cannabis. The vetting process has been slow, and to date only 40 permits have been granted. But, according to ANRAC head El-Guerrouj, several of those were to Moroccan affiliates of foreign companies. Farmers worry multinationals will begin buying up land in the Rif to control the entire supply chain, pushing them off their ancestral lands and out of the business their families rely on.

Without a detailed plan that guarantees social equity and Indigenous peoples’ equal financial benefits from proceeds of the new enterprises, many farmers are rejecting the plan, opting instead to stay in the shadows. And it seems they will be able to do so. Despite legalizing the growing of cannabis for pharmaceutical and industrial use, Morocco has retained a strict ban on production for recreational use — a demand that is not going away, either in the country or internationally. Opportunities for traffickers will persist, creating a shadow market that could drive the cost of recreational hash down, further hammering the local community, and small producers who grow for the local market will continue to be pursued as outlaws, even while multinationals encroach on their land.

El-Guerrouj and ANRAC, which is short-staffed and working on tightened timelines, admits to not having all the answers yet. The first step, the agency said, is launching a bid for proposals to conduct a study aimed at developing a 10-year strategic plan for the legal use of cannabis. But while the bureaucratic wheels turn slowly, more nimble forces are drafting strategic plans of their own.

The mood at the Officine Expo: Pharma Africa summit in Marrakesh this past February was effusive as officials and entrepreneurs pitched the potential of cannabis to the 700 attendees. Reps from pharma companies, potential investors and medical researchers gathered in a conference hall at a five-star resort to hear presentations on the legalization process and the future of the once-banned crop. There were panels on its use in cancer research, the quality of local varieties and its marketability.

Among the attendees was Khalid El-Attaoui, the deputy managing director of Axess Pharma, one of the companies vying for a chance to transform Rifi crops into everything from cancer drugs to cannabis soft drinks and chocolate. He insisted that pharma companies’ role in the scheme was not merely about profit seeking. “It’s not a monopoly, it’s a responsibility,” he said.

Sitting at the back of the hall, Abdellatif Adebibe, a local figure involved in pro-cannabis legalization, was markedly unimpressed as he listened to the visions of a capitalist cannabis utopia the heads of Big Pharma painted for the crowd. For 25 years, Adebibe led the fight for legalization in Morocco from his own fields in Ketama, the mecca of cannabis. As part of his campaign, Adebibe traveled around Europe and Africa telling the story of his father, who once fought against Spanish colonization only to find himself post-independence fighting a new battle: his right for dignity as he worked his cannabis land — without being perceived as a criminal.

The 70-year-old activist was not among those invited to speak at the conference, but when the floor opened for questions, he rose to take the microphone and excoriated the politicians and businesspeople in the crowd. In French, he detailed what he called the hypocrisy of the state in crafting the new legalization.

“It is not about money for us; it was always about human rights,” he said.

He spoke of the sense of “otherness” Rifi farmers have always felt and that, as much as they want financial security, they want first and foremost to be respected as equals and not merely reformed criminals. This, he said, was highlighted in the way officials spoke about them, in euphemistic terms — calling cannabis farming “the issue” or referring to it still as an “illicit” business. It reinforced the stigma and framed the new legalization as charity from the state, he said, rather than as the hard-won gains from the farmers’ long-standing struggle.

When Adebibe finished, an uneasy air fell on the hall; a few shy claps rose from the crowd. He stood, waiting for a reply from the shocked, silent officials and businesspeople sitting on the stage.

Mohamed Benamar, a consultant for ANRAC, doused the tensions with assurances that the king himself is quite concerned with the situation of Rifi farmers and that the state is prioritizing their interests over all other aspects. But for Adebibe, it was mere platitudes. As long as the farmers and officials were standing on opposing sides of the hall, a reconciliation would be meaningless.

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