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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco: Cannabis Legislation but the Devil in the Details

cannabis morocco
A villager stands in a field of cannabis near the town of Ketama in Morocco’s northern Rif region. Photo: FADEL SENNA / AFP

By: Sophia Akram

Morocco approved in March 2021 a law that will see a legal cannabis industry emerge in one of the highest marijuana producing countries in the world. The move could bring significant benefits to Morocco but challenges remain for farmers who make most of their income from the resin that will linger in the informal and illegal economy.

Cultivating cannabis in the North African kingdom has been strictly illegal but successful resistance from farmers and the desire to contain escalating social and economic disenfranchisement has meant growing the crop has been tolerated.

Morocco’s production is concentrated mostly in the mountainous Rif region, where around 136,000 acres of land was used to grow hashish in 2019, according to reports on Morocco’s official figures. It has been cited as the world’s largest cannabis resin producer by the UN (2007) and official estimates show the country’s illicit industry to be worth in the region of $15 billion.

Amid a decade-long campaign to legalise the production and sale of the plant, long-term opposition fell away هin February 2021 after the Conservative Justice and Development Party (PJD) changed stance, clearing the path for the draft bill on legalising the production, sale and export of cannabis for medical use.

Since the announcement on 25 February 2021, a draft bill has already been produced, now moving through both the lower and upper chambers of parliament with little resistance expected.

The sudden move has surprised observers like Jasper Hamann, foreign policy analyst at Morocco World News. He told Fanack they had been expecting a report touting cannabis legalisation as part of a potential new economic model for Morocco. The PJD dropping its opposition — which he says has been one of the largest obstacles to cannabis legalisation — came out of the blue.

“When, in Morocco, there’s so much political support for an issue previously proposed by the majority party, that does indicate that there is likely some influence from the top that has driven this rapid evolution”, says Hamann.

It has also come several months after the UN greenlit the decriminalisation of cannabis, in a vote for its reclassification.

The UN vote to de-schedule cannabis is the main mover of enabling legalisation, says Michael Sassano, CEO and Chairman of the Board for Somai Pharmaceuticals, an Ireland-based company focused on cannabinoid pharmaceutical products. Morocco was among the 27 countries of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs that voted for declassification.

“Of course, global trends in major countries are also having an effect”, Sassano told Fanack in a written response.

Bill 13-21 covers much of the regulation around production elements of cannabis for medical use while leaving cannabis for recreational use a criminal offence.

According to the Arabic text — an English explainer is available at Morocco World News — cannabis farmers will need to form cooperatives to produce and sell cannabis, overseen by a national agency that will provide permits, oversee labour standards, liaise with foreign investors and distribute to domestic and foreign markets.

It also outlines restrictions on areas of production, upper THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) limits, and quotas. There are also tight guidelines around standards, reporting and prescribed sanctions involving prison sentences up to two years and fines of up to $11,100 for circumventing certain rules.

These efforts also ultimately remove the taboo associated with cannabis and the threat of arrest for farmers who travel away from their villages.

According to figures purportedly referenced by the interior ministry, around 90,000 households or 760,000 Moroccans have livelihoods dependent on cannabis production and now potentially have access to a global market with a compound annual growth rate of 17.8 percent between 2020 and 2027.

The bill also gives a level of protection for farmers who are often the victims in the process, says Hamann.

“Illegal cannabis is very much beneficial to some parties, primarily organised crime groups, smugglers, people who take a little off the side with these processes”, he says.

Driving informal participants into the formal markets enables Morocco’s ambitions for universal health care and an expanded social security system that covers all citizens, adds Hamann, that protects workers from workplace hazards as well as exploitation by drug traffickers.

Last month a Tangier factory with an “illegal textiles operation” was flooded, resulting in the death of 28 people and outrage over the lack of regulation and exploitation in Morocco’s largely informal textile industry.

“There are several factors combining — on the one hand, the bill very explicitly protects farmers and traditional cannabis-producing regions of Morocco that are located in the Rif mountains in the north — on the other hand, trying to break this legality. There’s also the promise of fast riches when it comes to tax revenue”, says Hamann, “Those factors combined have led to this very rapid evolution”.

Safeguards also exist in the bill to prevent potential exploitation from foreigners thinking about exploiting Morocco’s resources, including scarce water resources, with permits only available for Moroccan nationals over 18 and farming only permitted in designated zones.

Opinion is divided, however, in Rif among cannabis farmers, some of whom lament the fact that production of the resin hashish will still be criminalised, impacting their trade.

According to Reuters, unprocessed cannabis for industrial use will give farmers a third of what the same amount would yield once processed into hash.

In addition, arrest warrants still loom for around 30,000 people around Ketama, known as Morocco’s “hash capital“. Some reportedly have mused there should be an alternative economy for the region where kif (cannabis powder) production has been the main economic activity.

Commercially, Sassano says there are lessons to be learned from the rest of the world like Canada, Europe, Israel, and the US:

“Canada built too much too quickly and is now facing closures of cultivation facilities. Sales outlets like dispensaries came later, as well as edibles, further hampering the market. Europe is perusing pharmaceutical and distribution through the large pharmaceutical networks, but high costs and doctors’ prescription requirements have slowed the outreach to patients. Israel has a combination of pharmaceutical distribution with nutraceutical [products with physiological/medicinal benefits] manufacturing requirements allowing for mass distribution of more economical products. The US developed recreational dispensaries and very low bar manufacturing requirements in tandem when they could have required food grade-GMP [good manufacturing practices] at a minimum and also opened up to pharmacy networks to further speed[up] adoption.

“Morocco could have a successful launch if they allow for nutraceutical GMP products and specialized dispensaries/lounges, plus open pharmaceutical network sales and delivery straight away”.

Further details are expected on cannabis distribution in further legislation. Sassano iterates that cannabis decriminalisation is inevitable for most economies that has multiple benefits more broadly, including less dependence on other narcotics and alcohol.

“The train has left the building”, he said, “governments need to respond to ailing economies and wasted money combating a healthy alternative to big pharma”.