Morocco issues first cannabis production permits
In the hills of northern Morocco, vast fields of cannabis are ready to harvest, but farmers complain that a government plan to legally commercialize the crop is yet to bring them any benefits.
The marginalized Rif region has long been a major source of illicit hashish smuggled into Europe, while Moroccan authorities, fearing social unrest, have often turned a blind eye.
Growers hope the law change, which came last year, will help them legally benefit from medicinal cannabis which is increasingly being used to treat conditions such as multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
Morocco, the world's largest producer of hashish according to the United Nations, sits on Europe's doorstep and is potentially well placed to become a legitimate leading exporter.
But a nationwide crackdown on growers, slow licensing for legal production and stiff competition from European operators have left Rif farmers on the hook.
We are still attached to this plant but it no longer brings us much. No one wants it anymore and our lives are hard now,” said Souad, a cannabis farmer whose name has been changed.
Like other people interviewed by AFP, she did not want her real name to be published.
"Nobody wants it anymore", declared Souad, shrugging his shoulders. "Our lives are difficult now."
Under a law the government approved last March, farmers will be able to form cooperatives to grow limited amounts of cannabis that will be processed and sold by licensed companies.
Souad, who still helps his sons on the family plot despite his 60 years, keeps the timid hope that this will help his community to live better.
"If it's serious, it's a good thing," she said.
Moroccan farmers' income from cannabis has fallen from 500 million euros (now around $497 million) a year in the early 2000s to less than 325 million euros in 2020, according to a study by the Ministry of Agriculture. Interior last year.
"The market has dropped drastically," said Karim, another grower.
To add to the pressure, he has only been able to cultivate part of his family's land in Azila this year due to water shortages caused by the worst drought in decades.
Moroccan authorities have also stepped up raids on farmers in the Rif as they seek to dismantle smuggling networks for the benefit of legal trade.
"The only option left to us is prison," the 44-year-old said.
Nourredine, another cannabis grower, said he too hoped that legalizing the drug could help farmers in the Rif.
However, he added, “so far nothing has changed. We are always seen as thugs and criminals, but we are only farmers. »
A six-hour drive away in the capital Rabat, a government official insisted better times were at hand for cannabis growers.
"There may be concerns, but legalization will dispel them because it will benefit growers," he said, asking not to be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media on the matter.
According to state news agency MAP, the state estimates growers could receive about 12% of revenue from regulated cannabis production, compared to just 4% on the black market.
The authorities, however, stressed that the process should not be rushed.
On Tuesday, ANRAC, a new government agency inaugurated in June to regulate the industry, issued the first 10 licenses to companies that will treat the plant for therapeutic purposes.
Next, it will be the turn of farmers in the Riffian provinces of Al-Hoceima, Chefchaouen and Taounate to form cooperatives and register with ANRAC in order to receive production licenses under a quota system.
According to the 2021 law, cannabis production licenses are granted "only in the quantities necessary to meet the needs of the manufacture of products for medical, pharmaceutical and therapeutic purposes".
Cannabis farms covered 55 hectares (about 000 acres) in the northeast of the kingdom in 136, providing livelihoods for nearly 000 families, according to a study prior to the passage of the law.
Civil society groups in the region are currently mobilizing to educate farmers on the technical aspects of the new system.
Some details are “complicated,” said Soufiane Zahlaf, who represents Azila residents with authorities on the matter.
“But if the authorities' approach is inclusive, then great things can be achieved,” he added. »