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Morocco's bill to legalise cannabis divides growers

REUTERS/Stringer A farmer carries dried cannabis bundle in Ketama, in the northern Rif mountains, Morocco.

By Ahmed Eljechtimi
In Morocco's impoverished Rif mountains, cannabis grower Mohamed El Mourabit hopes a plan to legalise the drug for some uses will raze what he calls a "wall of fear" surrounding farmers caught between poverty, traffickers and the law.

The government last week approved a law to allow the cultivation, export and use of cannabis for medicine or industry. Parliament looks likely to ratify it, despite the issue dividing the governing coalition's biggest party.

The change is meant to improve the lot of farmers in the often restive Rif region where it has been grown for decades, and to tap into a growing global market for legal cannabis.

But the law has divided opinion among Rif farmers, who fear it will do nothing to address a years-long slide in their income or help them escape outstanding arrest warrants.

Some want the law to allow recreational cannabis use and its processing into more lucrative resin - "hashish".

Others want its cultivation or development for medicinal or industrial purposes limited to their region alone.
"We are fed up with fear and secrecy. We want a decent life," said Mourabit, speaking on a mountain peak overlooking cannabis fields above the village of Ketama.

Nearly a million people live in areas of northern Morocco where cannabis is the main economic activity. It has been publicly grown and smoked there for generations, mixed with tobacco in traditional long-stemmed pipes with clay bowls.

Outside Ketama, the sound of workers beating fine fabric sieves to sift powder from leaves before processing into hashish echoed across the steep terraced fields where a farmer was ploughing with a team of mules.

"We tried growing cereals but the weather and yield were not enough to live on. Cannabis is all that grows here," the farmer said, standing near a cottage with a rusted iron roof.

The United Nations drugs agency says about 47,000 hectares of the Rif are devoted to cannabis output, about a third the amount in 2003 after government crackdowns. Morocco remains one of the world's top illegal exporters of the drug, it says.

As the road rises towards Ketama, cedar-topped mountains and terraces replace the lush scenery of olive groves and cereal farms. Despite its wild beauty, there is no tourism.

The absence of state authority was clear near Ketama as two young men furiously honked their car horn, stopping traffic to offer hashish for sale.

A resident at a litter-strewn public park said many younger locals wanted to cross to Spain, despite the dangerous voyage.

Some 30,000 people around Ketama are wanted by police for cannabis offences. "I was arrested for transporting our homemade resin to a dealer," said a farmer, scattering seeds in a field.

One of the Rif's biggest cities, Al-Hoceima, saw protests in 2016-17 over economic and social conditions. The state has long seen tolerance for cannabis production as a way to buy social peace.

Mourabit fears the new law will lead more fertile regions to start growing cannabis too. "We need to limit farming of the herb to its historical areas," he said.

Along the country roads, tractors and farm equipment stood ready with manure to fertilise fields before sowing this year's crop.

Prices have fallen hard in recent years as more potent, high-yield strains emerged. A farmer could sell a kilogram of hashish for 15,000 dirhams (£1200) a decade ago but only gets 2,500 dirhams for it now, locals said.

"The dealer sets the price", said the farmer with the mules.

If hashish production is not permitted in the legalised trade, their income will be hit still harder. A tonne of unprocessed cannabis fetches £500 for industrial use. The same amount would produce 12kg of hashish worth £2,400.

Saleh Lakhbech, a university student and son of a local farmer, believes the bill was dreamed up "in air conditioned rooms without consulting farmers" and thinks the government should instead invest to build an alternative economy for the region.

"Cannabis is a curse that has marginalised us for 80 years," he said, surrounded by angry, nodding farmers.

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