Morocco Begins Modest Legal Cultivation, But Ultimately It Will Leverage Its Recreational Hash Reputation into Europe
Matthew Griffin and Souhail Karam
11 August 2023 at 14:00:00
Morocco began its first legal cannabis plantings in June 2023 in a Government-supported project. This is the first step in bringing the illegal market into the open, but there’s a long way to go before Moroccan hash gets to be above board.
This week, guest writers Matthew Griffin and Souhail Karam take a look at the country’s progress in legal cannabis cultivation. For further reading on the topic, check out Souhail’s in-depth story from late last year.
Farmers have planted the first legal cannabis crop in Morocco, long a top producer of black-market hashish. For now, it’s shaping up to be a modest entry into the above-board market, but hopes are high the nation will one day become a key supplier to the steadily opening European market.
The country’s first growing season began in June 2023 after legal cultivation was authorized to a group of farmers and companies for medical and industrial use. The government has touted the project as an opportunity to boost revenue, create jobs and protect the environment.
Cultivation for recreational use is still banned, however, which experts say limits how quickly the industry will be able to grow. The project also faces resistance in the Rif, a mountainous region where the plant has long been cultivated — and where many growers remain loyal to drug barons who they say have supported their villages for generations.
“Cannabis has been in place in the region for centuries, and changing it from one day to the next is going to create resistance,” said Khalid Mouna, a professor at Moulay Ismail University in Meknes who studies Morocco’s cannabis economy.
While the government has licensed hundreds of farmers and dozens of companies ranging from seed importers to pharmaceutical firms, it’s hard to know what to expect in terms of production volumes. There are no official figures on how much area was planted or projections for output.
And there’s still strong competition from drug barons, who are increasing prices for hashish resin, much of which is sold in Europe’s illicit market. The higher prices are partially related to higher input costs such as fertilizers, but the barons also want to secure their access to farmers’ harvests by making the legal path less profitable for them, said Adardak Charif, a cannabis farming researcher based in the Rif.
“Adherence by farmers to the legalization is quite weak,” Charif said, citing hurdles such as a requirement that farmers find a buyer for their crop before they receive a license.
The country isn’t alone in experiencing bumps on the road to legalization, according to Lawrence Purkiss, senior analyst at cannabis research firm Prohibition Partners. Around the world, traditional farmers have been held back from entering the legal market due to expensive upfront costs, administrative hurdles and quality standards that are difficult to meet for smaller businesses and cultivators. Even Canada and US states, which are among the most mature legal markets, have struggled to supplant their well-established illicit markets.
Morocco is of interest because it has advantages, said Alastair Moore, cofounder of cannabis-focused consultancy Hanway Associates. Its products have an established cachet, with Moroccan hashish a mainstay from the streets of Spain to the coffee shops of the Netherlands. That could give exporters a stamp of legitimacy. Its location just across the Mediterranean also grants it easy access to Europe, where nations such as German, the UK and Italy are opening up to cannabis. The are also trade agreements with the US and EU.
The nation’s state agency regulating legal cannabis activity has promised farmers that legalization will earn them four to five times the income they make from growing cannabis for hashish resin. Farmers are free to choose whether to participate, the agency’s head has pointed out. The state cannabis regulator ANRAC didn’t respond to a request for a comment.
Yet reaching Morocco’s full potential is unlikely as long as cultivation is limited to medical and industrial markets. Other countries have already snapped up market share, and the African nation won’t be selling the recreational hash it’s best known for in Europe. For now, the country doesn’t have formal plans to authorize cannabis cultivation for recreational sales.
Even if Morocco fully legalized the drug domestically, there isn’t an above-board international trade in recreational cannabis, though Hanway’s Moore expects that countries legalizing the drug will push for that to change to resolve supply issues.
“The real opportunity for Morocco in the long term is going to be in recreational,” Moore said, “because that’s where their brand is.”