Pubdate: Thu, 13 Jul 2006
Source: Economist, The (UK)
Copyright: 2006 The Economist Newspaper Limited


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."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek