In the hills of northern Morocco, vast cannabis fields are ready for harvest, but farmers complain that a government plan to legally market the crop has yet to offer them any benefits.
The marginalized Rif region has long been a major source of cannabis smuggling into Europe, while Moroccan authorities, fearing social unrest, often turn a blind eye.
Farmers now hope that a law change last year will help them legally benefit from medicinal cannabis, which is increasingly used to treat conditions including multiple sclerosis and epilepsy.
Morocco – the largest producer of cannabis in the world according to the United Nations – is on the cusp of Europe and is likely to be well positioned to become the largest legitimate exporter.
But a local crackdown on farmers, slow progress in licensing legal production, and strong competition from European operators have left rural farmers out in the cold.
“We are still attached to this plant, but it has stopped giving us anything,” said Souad, a cannabis grower in Azila village.
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Like others interviewed by AFP, she did not want her real name published.
Souad shrugged, “Nobody wants her anymore.” “Our lives are difficult now.”
Under a law approved by the government in March last year, farmers will be able to form cooperatives to grow limited quantities of cannabis for processing and sale by licensed companies.
Souad, who is still helping her sons with the family scheme even though she is in her sixties, has a temporary hope that this will help her community earn a better living.
“If it’s serious,” she said, “that’s a good thing.”
– We’re just farmers –
Demand for the Moroccan product declined as legal and highly regulated production in Europe fed the market.
Moroccan cannabis farmers’ income has fallen from 500 million euros (about $497 million now) a year in the early 2000s to less than 325 million euros in 2020, according to a study by the Ministry of the Interior last year.
“The market has gone down a lot,” said Karim, another farmer.
Adding to the pressure, he was only able to cultivate part of his family’s land in Azila this year due to water shortages due to the worst drought in decades.
Moroccan authorities have also stepped up their raids against rural farmers in an effort to dismantle smuggling networks in favor of legitimate trade.
Karim complained that “farmers are the weakest link in the supply chain – we are the ones paying the price” for our involvement in the illegal market.
“The only option we have left is prison,” said the 44-year-old.
Noureddine, another cannabis grower, said he too is hopeful that legalizing the drug can help farmers in the countryside.
But he added: “So far nothing has changed. We are always seen as thugs and criminals, but we are just farmers.”
– Complex bureaucracy –
A six-hour drive away in the capital, Rabat, a government official insisted better times were near for cannabis growers.
“There may be concerns, but rationing will dispel them as it will benefit the farmers,” he said, requesting anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media about it.
The state estimates that farmers can receive about 12 percent of revenue from regulated cannabis production, compared to just 4 percent on the black market, according to official news agency MAP.
But the authorities stressed that the process should not be rushed.
On Tuesday, ANRAC, a new government agency that opened in June to regulate the industry, issued its first 10 licenses to companies that will process the plant for therapeutic purposes.
Then comes the role of farmers in the rural states of Al Hoceima, Chefchaouen and Tounas to form cooperatives and register with ANRAC with the aim of obtaining production licenses based on quotas.
Under the 2021 law, licenses for cannabis production are granted “only to the extent necessary to meet the needs of manufacturing products for medical, pharmaceutical and therapeutic purposes.”
Hemp plantations covered 55,000 hectares (about 136,000 acres) in the northeastern kingdom in 2019, providing livelihoods for up to 120,000 families, according to a study before the law was passed.
Civil society groups in the area are now mobilizing to familiarize farmers with the technical aspects of the new system.
Some of the details are “complicated”, said Sofian Zallaf, who represents Azila residents in dealing with authorities on the matter.
“But if the authorities’ approach is comprehensive, then great things can be achieved,” he said.