Eyeing lucrative profits, Morocco is seeking to legalise cannabis

Eyeing lucrative profits, Morocco is seeking to legalise cannabis. The main obstacle? Islamist opposition
6 min read
13 May, 2021
In-depth: Cannabis legalisation in Morocco could provide economic opportunity, dependant upon Europe, party politics, and upcoming elections.
A villager walks through a cannabis field in Rif. [Getty]
The stakes for legalising cannabis in Morocco are rising. The country is close to entering into the legal cannabis market, joining Israel, Canada, and the US.

On 11 March, the Moroccan government approved a bill to regulate medical cannabis and industrial hemp. However, the bill still must be ratified by Parliament, and political debate on cannabis is intensifying amid the leadup to the September 2021 general elections.

This is not the first attempt to legalise cannabis in Morocco. But unlike other efforts, this proposal has come directly from the sitting coalition government.

By legalising cannabis, Morocco aims to attract global investment in medical and industrial cannabis companies. This investment would create new economic opportunity, but legal obstacles are not easy to overcome. Even if ratified by Parliament, the bill would require additional legislation to create a comprehensive regulatory framework for production and export.

Morocco's Cannabis Legalization Framework, Bill 13-21, introduced by Interior Minister Abdelouafi Laftit, aims to legalise medical cannabis and industrial hemp, but not recreational cannabis. The bill authorises adult Moroccan citizens to cultivate and produce cannabis with a low level of THC, which is the psychotropic cannabinoid in the cannabis plant.

With a long history of cultivation, the Moroccan kingdom is one of the top global producers of cannabis and hashish

Authorisations would be issued under the supervision of an agency, which would carry out several other activities, such as regulating international trade and sale.

Cannabis in Morocco 

Although illegal since 1954, cannabis has been generally tolerated in Morocco. With a long history of cultivation, the Moroccan kingdom is one of the top global producers of cannabis and hashish. Furthermore, the culture of hashish (locally known as kif) has been an attraction for tourists and cannabis aficionados from all over the world.

Most cannabis cultivation occurs in 470 sq km (181 sq miles) in the Northern Rif Region. Moroccan cultivators produce around 35,000 tonnes of cannabis per year, which can be processed into up to 714 tonnes of hashish, worth about $23bn, according to a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

Morocco is an essential hub for international illicit drug trafficking. Drug cartels use routes through the country to export cannabis, cocaine, and other drugs to Europe.

Israel and Morocco have agreed to normalise relations. [Getty]
Read more: How Morocco-Israel normalisation could push Algeria closer to Russia

In 2020, Morocco was the only MENA country to vote in favour of removing cannabis from Schedule IV of the UN's Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, noting the therapeutic value of cannabis. This historic vote has been influential in pushing the Moroccan government to adopt the current bill to legalise medical cannabis and industrial hemp. 

What do politicians think?

The conservative Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), the past decade's most popular party and current leader of the coalition government, is the only party to widely oppose this bill.

"Everyone supports legalisation, except PJD, even though some of its members belonging to the government approved the bill," Chakib Al Khayari, cannabis activist and coordinator of the Moroccan Collective for the Therapeutic and Industrial use of Kif, told The New Arab.

Within the PJD, the cannabis bill is controversial. On one hand, Prime Minister Saadeddine Othmani has signaled his support, participating in the committee on the bill. On the other hand, Abdelilah Benkirane, prime minister from 2011 - 2017, has cut ties with Othmani and threatened to leave the party if the PJD's members of the Parliament (MPs) vote in favour of the bill.

Critics of the PJD suggest that the party's opposition to cannabis legalisation is hypocritical. "[PJD] have religious justifications, but they have ratified financial laws every year, which include revenues of 10bn dirhams ($1.12bn) made by the income of cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling," said Al Khayari.

[PJD] have ratified financial laws every year, which include revenues of 10bn dirhams ($1.12bn) made by the income of cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling

Some experts suggest a connection between cannabis legalisation and the September 2021 elections. They predict that the promise of cannabis legalisation could engage thousands of potential voters. In fact, some pundits claim that the PJD is trying to delay the cannabis vote until after the elections.

However, in late April 2021, Interior Minister Laftit dismissed any correlation between legalisation and the elections.

"It has nothing to do with the elections. This law came for one reason: to open our eyes to new perspectives. Cultivating drugs is and always will be banned, no one has said otherwise. We don't want to allow the use of drugs. But we want to open a door to solve several problems. This will provide new perspectives for the inhabitants of the [Rif] region," he said during a press conference.

What do farmers think?

Cannabis cultivation provides a livelihood for 80,000 - 120,000 farmers in Morocco, according to several sources. Most individual farmers and farmers' associations support the bill, reports Al Khayari.

However, some farmers have reservations about the bill, according to several reports. Some would like to include the more lucrative recreational cannabis and hashish in the bill. Others worry that cultivating legal cannabis would reduce their income. However, official estimates project that farmers could earn around 12% profit from the legal market, compared with 4% from illegal drug trafficking.

Lebanon has cultivated cannabis for at least 100 years. [AFP]
Read more: Lebanon has legalised cannabis growing, but its political class are muscling in on small farmers

"Although legalising the cultivation of medical cannabis and industrial is a first positive step, the proposal is limited because it doesn't include any regulatory framework on recreational cannabis," said Tom Blickman, Senior Project Officer at the Transnational Institute, an international non-profit research and advocacy think tank.

Blickman argues that the European Union could help Morocco by providing technical and financial assistance on developing the medical and industrial cannabis markets.

However, even with legalisation, the illegal market will not be wiped out, Blickman warned The New Arab. "As long as there is demand from Europe, Moroccan traffickers will continue to supply illegal cannabis," he said.

As long as there is demand from Europe, Moroccan traffickers will continue to supply illegal cannabis

"There are initiatives to legalise cannabis in Europe, but the problem is that those initiatives exclude imports from the other countries. Thus, the risk is that the European countries are likely to develop only their domestic markets, preventing Morocco and other countries from entering the market," Blickman said.

What is the situation in MENA?

Cannabis legalisation for medical and industrial purposes could allow Morocco to become a global player in the cannabis market, as other MENA countries remain reluctant to enter the cannabis market.

In 2020, Lebanon became the first MENA country to legalise medical cannabis and industrial hemp. However, its economic and political crisis has hindered the creation of the infrastructures necessary to develop the market.

Cannabis cultivation provides an income for 90,000 households in northern Morocco. [AFP]
Read more: Hashish sparks Algeria-Morocco war of words

Israel is one of the top countries in the world for cannabis research and development. The Israeli medical cannabis industry is partnered with several countries for import and export. Moreover, Israel has decriminalised the use of recreational cannabis, and some proposals in the Knesset could make Israel the first MENA country to legalise recreational cannabis.

In Morocco, the future of legal cannabis is dependent on European legalisation and import laws, as well as Moroccan political developments.

Even after the cannabis bill is ratified by the government, which is likely, the social and economic benefits of the legalisation are highly dependent on lawmakers developing a comprehensive regulatory framework to create a cannabis market suitable for international investors.

Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights. 

Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi