Story and Photos by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy
What had long been assumed by international observers was at last confirmed in 2004 by the first cannabis survey ever conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which revealed that 134,000 hectares of cannabis had been cultivated in Morocco in the previous year, yielding 42% of global hashish production and establishing once and for all the North African nation’s claim as the world’s leading producer and exporter of hashish. Because such activity remains illegal in Morocco, hashish production remains more or less confined to the mountainous Rif region, where a long tradition of political tolerance of cannabis cultivation continues due to a complex set of colonial, political and economic factors. Since the 1980s, local cannabis cultivation has exploded, along with hashish production—now clearly the main economic activity in the Rif, otherwise one of the least economically developed areas of Morocco.
Compared to South Asia, Morocco’s history of cannabis propagation is relatively recent, dating back to the Arab invasions of the seventh century, with most historians agreeing that cannabis cultivation didn’t reach Ketama—the mountainous Rif area north of Fez—until the 15th century. The official right to cultivate cannabis in the Rif was first granted in the 19th century to five douars, or villages, by Sultan Moulay Hassan, and the policy has continued throughout the region’s long, complex and violent history of rivalries and instabilities, eventually creating a well-entrenched industry, both politically and economically.
This tolerance was even extended during the rule of the Spanish Protectorate, which was set up in 1912 when France and Spain overruled the Moroccan monarchy, except for the brief period (1921-26) during which the local Berber tribes united against the Spanish authority, created the independent Republic of the Rif, and opposed cannabis cultivation and consumption. After the separatists were defeated, the restored Spanish power reinstated the zone of cultivation, and even Mohammed V eventually tolerated cannabis cultivation at the onset of Moroccan independence in 1956, in order to quell tribal discontent after earlier announcing a national cannabis prohibition.
Beginning in the 1960s, Morocco became one of the first destinations on the famed “Hippie Hashish Trail.” But in those early days, cannabis production was geared toward making kif—a local mixture of two-thirds chopped marijuana and one-third tobacco, smoked in a sebsi, the region’s traditional long-stemmed wood-and-clay pipe—and the only hash available was imported from Lebanon. No one knows for sure when and how hashish was first produced in Morocco, but various accounts point to the arrival of Western hippies, who started making sieved hashish in Ketama after learning the technique in South Asia. Cannabis cultivation stayed under control in a limited geographical area until the early 1980s, when output was increased in response to the growing European hash market that had developed over the previous decade—a demand that also transformed the Moroccan cannabis economy from producing kif to producing hashish for export. Over the next two decades, cannabis cultivation increased and spread outside the traditional growing areas at a time when wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria—plus US-led counternarcotics efforts in Lebanon and Turkey—negatively affected those nations’ respective hashish industries, spurring Moroccan production. In the last five years, cultivation has reached unprecedented acreage and geographical limits, as shown by the 134,000 and 120,500 hectares grown in 2003 and 2004, respectively, proving that cannabis tolerance continues today under the reign of Mohammed VI and despite the declaration by his father, Hassan II, of a “war on drugs” in September 1992.