MAKING A HASH OF IT: Why It Is Hard To Stop Moroccans Growing A Lucrative Crop
ONCE you leave the tarmac road, the hillside hamlet of Mechkralla can be reached only after an arduous three-hour trek up a mule track, itself partly paid for by the European Union to encourage tourism in Morocco's northern mountain range, the Rif. Almost as soon as the main roads and towns are out of sight, the wild, rocky landscape turns into a patchwork of verdant cannabis fields interspersed with golden wheat and hot-pink oleander bushes. Along the way, women with bright striped sashes and straw hats are harvesting the tall seven-leafed plants.
The Rif has hundreds of villages like Mechkralla, virtually all surviving on the growth of this illegal crop whose resin, extracted from cannabis pollen, is turned into hashish. According to the United Nations, the region exports 1,000 tonnes a year, providing 80% of European hash-smokers' needs, and nearly one-third of the world's.
Hamed, a blissful-looking farmer who smokes the dried buds in the traditional way, mixing them with coarse tobacco in a long reed pipe, sells a kilo of hash for 3,000 dirhams ( $348 ). By the time it reaches Paris or London, its value may multiply by ten. If Hamed grew wheat instead, his modest income would fall several times over.
Under the French protectorate, cannabis cultivation was eradicated in most of Morocco. But the Rif fell under nominal Spanish control and, even after independence in 1956, it had a dispensation to grow the crop but not to sell it in on a large scale. However, after the late King Hassan II quashed a rebellion in 1958 when still crown prince, the Rif fell into disfavour. Hassan refused to set foot there during his 38-year reign, a period when the Rif exported two main things: migrant workers escaping extreme poverty--and hashish.
One of Muhammad VI's first acts after succeeding his father seven years ago was to end that ostracism with a long state visit to the Rif. Under pressure from America and the European Union, his government launched a half-hearted war on drugs. Since 2004, when it finally banned cultivation, it has pushed cannabis-growing into the Rif's hinterland. Early this month, police burnt cannabis fields around Larache, on the Rif's Atlantic edge. New roads are being built to make cultivation more conspicuous and to encourage farmers to grow other plants, such as olive or almond trees. But they take years to bear fruit and bring in a lot less cash. So the government is simply pushing cultivation out of sight.
A liberal weekly, Tel Quel, published in French in Casablanca, is campaigning to legalise hash. Its editor, Ahmed Ben Chemsi, calculates from official figures on the sale of loose tobacco and rolling paper that Moroccans, who number 33m, smoke a good 1.1 billion joints a year--ie, about 60 joints a year for every adult. Legalising it, he says, would fill state coffers, bring tourists to the neglected region and reduce corruption. "How can it be illegal when so many people do it?" he says. "You can't criminalise such a large part of society."