Pubdate: Mon, 17 Jun 2002
Source: St. Petersburg Times (FL)
Copyright: 2002 St. Petersburg Times
Author: Susan Taylor Martin, Times Senior Correspondent


Morocco Does Little to Weed Out a Drug That Brings in $3-Billion a Year

KETAMA, Morocco -- High in the Rif Mountains, a work crew busily
repairs a roadside water main. Around the bend, another group of men
just as busily diverts water from the main to irrigate an illegal but
healthy stand of plants. Here, within full view of a mosque, several
houses and the occasional passing cop, the men are growing cannabis
sativa. Or, as it is more commonly known, marijuana.

Morocco ranks among the world's largest producers of marijuana, much
of which is processed into a potent substance called hashish and
smuggled into Europe. So much Moroccan hashish is exported -- 1,500
tons a year -- that the country gets most of its hard currency from
the illegal hash trade. That's why it surprised everyone when the
Moroccan government announced in 2001 that it planned to eliminate all
hashish production within seven years.

It was a stunningly ambitious goal for a country whose citizens fondly
refer to hashish as "the green petrol." And now, as Britain and other
European nations relax their own marijuana laws, Morocco's war on
drugs already seems to be losing whatever momentum it might briefly
have had.

"There's $3-billion every year coming in from drugs," notes Aboubakr
Jamai, director of publication for Le Journal, a weekly Moroccan
investigative newspaper. "I can't imagine all that takes place without
the authorization of officials."

The Moroccan government, which is a party to several international
drug control treaties, denies any official complicity in the hashish
trade. It cites many efforts to halt the flow of drugs, among them
increasing the maximum penalty for narcotics violations to 30 years in
jail and an $80,000 fine.

A 35-Year-Old Tour Guide in Casablanca

But the typical sentence for major drug trafficking remains only 10
years. And many of those arrested have been foreigners, not the
Moroccan drug barons who "have a great deal of influence and power" in
the northern part of the country, where most of the marijuana is
grown, according to a U.S. State Department global narcotics report.

Moreover, the report says, Morocco's estimates of the amount of land
under cannabis cultivation are "increasingly questionable."

The Moroccan government now says that about 160,500 acres are used to
grow cannabis, about three times what it estimated several years ago.
The European Union contends the real figure is closer to 210,000 acres.

Most Moroccan hashish comes from the Rif Mountains, to the north and
east of the country's major cities. It is an area of spectacular
beauty but poor soil that is unfit for raising olives or other cash

As a result, the steep slopes are covered with cannabis plants that
grow right up to the narrow, bumpy road that snakes precariously along
the Rif's spine. Despite chilly temperatures and a thickening fog,
men, women and even children were working on several hashish
"plantations" one recent afternoon.

One man, typical of those on the lowest rung of the hash trade, said
he earns $50 a day, a princely sum in a country where the per capita
income is less than $4 per day. Among his jobs is weeding out an
invasive flowering plant whose fragrance can destroy the nearby
cannabis, he said.

When the marijuana is harvested in another two weeks, it will be dried
and culled of seeds and stems. Some of the resulting product will be
sold as what Americans call "grass," "weed" or "pot," and what
Moroccans know as "kif."

Most of the marijuana, though, will be further processed and converted
into hashish oil or resin. This is the famous "kif of the Rif," as
Moroccans call it. While it sells locally for $2 a gram, it will be
worth $30 a gram by the time it reaches Amsterdam, where cannabis use
has been decriminalized for years. One variety, named King Hassan
Supreme after the popular Moroccan monarch who died in 1999, is
considered of such high quality that it won Amsterdam's Cannabis Cup
for the best imported hashish.

Scientific studies are mixed as to whether cannabis use causes lasting
physical or mental harm, although most experts consider it far safer
than cocaine and heroin. Users say marijuana makes them relaxed and
sociable, while hashish sometimes causes unpleasant but short-lived
episodes of paranoia, especially in inexperienced users.

Both marijuana and hashish can also produce ravenous

"I only smoke at night," says Kaseem, a 35-year-old tour guide in
Casablanca, "because in the day I need to be up, and I'd be very
hungry all day. Also, when you smoke you have red eyes -- you can't
work with red eyes."

Kaseem, who did not want his last name used, is sitting in a
nondescript cafe in the old part of Casablanca, Morocco's biggest
city. Downstairs, kids play video games; upstairs, Kaseem and a few
friends meet almost every evening after work to talk, drink mint tea
and smoke hashish.

Among the regulars is a 27-year-old undercover policeman for
Casablanca's large seaport. He has arrested people for major amounts
of drugs, he says, but as a hashish user himself, "I don't mess with
the little stuff."

Although not obvious to the casual eye, there are countless hash dens
like this throughout Casablanca and the rest of Morocco. Drugs and
alcohol are taboo in many Muslim countries, but hash is so tolerated
here that, by some estimates, at least 25 percent of adults regularly

Unlike the United States, Morocco does not actively discourage the use
of cannabis or other drugs. Glue-sniffing is considered a bigger
problem among young people; authorities say 90 percent of Morocco's
homeless street kids sniff glue, which is even cheaper and more
readily available than hashish.)

Kaseem and his friends get their hashish from local dealers, who in
turn get it from suppliers 300 miles away in Ketama, the "hash
capital" of Morocco. A charmless town in the Rif Mountains, Ketama
probably has more hash dealers per capita than any other place on earth.

Law enforcement is slack, even non-existent, and competition for
customers is fierce. When a rental car with a couple of foreigners
drove through town recently, more than a dozen dealers descended on it
like a plague of locusts.

"At your service," one rough-looking man said.

"Come with me," pleaded another, offering a small nugget of hash as an

The dealers do not take no for an answer. As the rental car started to
pull away, several of them jumped in their own vehicles. Thus began a
Hollywood-style chase, with hash dealers pulling alongside the rental
at 60 mph, passing on blind curves and gesticulating wildly in a vain
attempt to get the foreigners to stop.

Not even a police checkpoint deterred them. Each dealer simply pressed
some dirhams, the Moroccan currency, into the cop's hand and continued

And so it went down the mountain, dealers dropping out one by one as
it became apparent the foreigners had no intention of buying.

The most persistent was a man in a tan Peugeot -- he gave chase for
more than an hour and got nearly 50 miles from home.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake