Should the EU help legalize cannabis farms in Morocco?

Political struggles delay legalization of cannabis in Morocco

If the bill clears the final hurdles in the coming weeks, Morocco could become the second Arab country to legalize cannabis. Lebanon was the first in 2020. But, thanks to the boom in medical marijuana, this measure fits perfectly with EU development goals and international drug policy.

According to various international agencies, including the UN and the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Morocco is one of the largest producers of cannabis in the world and the largest supplier of illegal by-products such as hashish which are intended for the EU. The legalization of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes could have a positive impact on around one million subsistence farmers, mainly in the north of the country.

The law has become one of the most controversial topics in the run-up to Morocco’s national elections in September. It is unclear whether the bill will pass, said Khalid Mouna, associate professor of anthropology at Moulay Ismail University in Meknes, in northern Morocco. Mouna studies the communities of cannabis growers. “The project is still under debate in the first chamber and it is used by political opponents,” he said.

Behind the government

The legalization of cannabis has already been suggested in Morocco. According to Mouna, this was mostly a tactic to gain support from voters in disadvantaged cannabis growing areas.

This time could be different, said Tom Blickman, an international drug policy researcher for the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute. “I think it’s serious because the initiative comes from the government, and behind the government there is the palace,” he said, referring to the Moroccan royal family. “The previous proposals came from the opposition.”

Morocco’s current progress towards legalization began in December at a meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Austria. Morocco was the only member country in the region to vote with other nations that also wanted to reclassify cannabis. The World Health Organization has recommended that cannabis be removed from the list of dangerous drugs so that its medical use can be investigated.

The UN vote, which saw the motion passed by a narrow margin, paved the way for Moroccan interior minister Abdelouafi Laftit to present the cannabis legalization bill to parliament in April. The government approved the bill: Members of Parliament must now ratify it.

Green gold rush?

Introducing the bill, Mr Laftit said that legalizing cannabis would help improve the lives of low-income cannabis growers, remove them from international drug smuggling networks and achieve better environmental outcomes in the regions. from Morocco where this culture is traditionally practiced.

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Most of the country’s cannabis comes from the economically depressed Rif region in the north, where farms are an open secret. But while farms are tolerated, the farmers themselves often live in poverty and fear.

The draft bill proposes a national cannabis agency and farmer cooperatives to regulate the sector. If cannabis were legalized, “Morocco would be ideally positioned to benefit from a huge influx of investment in the infrastructure needed to serve its lucrative market,” concludes a 2019 report from cannabis market research firm New Frontier. Data. The researchers added that this would also allow Moroccan growers to diversify into other cannabis-related products.

Morocco also has “a unique advantage, just being so close to the European market,” said John Kagia, knowledge manager at New Frontier Data. Cannabis from this country is generally of high quality, he added.

Islamist obstacles

However, serious political obstacles stand in the way of an official cannabis industry in Morocco. An important member of the Moroccan Justice and Development Party (PJD), Abdelilah Benkirane, also a former prime minister, this month suspended his membership in the conservative Islamist party. He did so because the PJD had abandoned its opposition to legalizing the cultivation of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes. The PJD is the head of the current coalition government, but it has lost popular support during the pandemic.

Politicians have also vigorously debated the question of which parliamentary committees should consider the bill. Critics said it was another way to extend its adoption.

In April, groups of farmers in the cannabis-producing regions of the north announced that they also wanted to change the bill. Many say they haven’t been consulted enough.

For example, legalizing the cultivation of cannabis could cause farms to move to areas more suitable for agriculture, and farmers in the north want to restrict future cultivation to areas where it has traditionally been cultivated. It could also lower the prices they get for their crops. The farmers have also asked for an amnesty for the more than 40,000 people subject to arrest warrants for their involvement in the trade.

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Alternatives to crime

Mr Blickman said EU governments could do more to support Morocco’s legalization campaign with a focus on so-called “alternative development”.

Originally, “alternative development” arose from the fact that “the lack of success and the high financial and social costs of the“ war on drugs ”caused many countries to rethink their policies”, according to a strategic document published in October 2020 by the German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Initially, alternative development consisted of finding other sources of income for farmers who had been involved in the cultivation of illicit drugs, such as bananas, cocoa, coffee, livestock or even fish. Cannabis, for medical use, has recently become one of these alternatives.

“More and more countries, including Germany, are adopting laws to regulate medical use,” notes the government’s policy document. “This could increase the demand for legally cultivated medical cannabis and open up potential for development in areas where cannabis has only been cultivated illegally so far. “

According to Kagia, there is a strong connection between the idea of ​​development and the commercial market. Most of the countries that are currently trying to legalize the cultivation of cannabis are planning to export to Europe, he said. “And without commercial markets in Europe, cannabis as a development tool doesn’t work. A well-regulated medical cannabis market will be the main catalyst for the industry’s growth. “
Toxic atmosphere

“It would be good for Europe to be more open to see how it can help set up this industry by importing, for example, medical cannabis from Morocco to Germany – the largest market for medical cannabis in the world. ‘current time,’ Blickman said. “A favorable statement from countries with medical cannabis programs could help.”

Driss Benhima, former director of the government-run Northern Morocco Development Agency, which has led multiple studies on cannabis cultivation in the region and advised the government on the subject, agreed that if Europe facilitated imports, it would help his country.

First, he says, it will help preserve the natural environment, “which is deeply damaged by the intensive agriculture used in the illicit production of cannabis.” And second, and perhaps most importantly, it will help address what he describes as “the toxic mistrust between cannabis growers and national public institutions,” which has hampered development projects. past in this area.

“I hope that legalization will change all that,” said Benhima, “and lead to decent incomes, social inclusion and environmental protection. “

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