Pubdate: Tue, 30 Jul 2013
Source: Independent  (UK)
Copyright: 2013 Washington Post
Author: Souhail Karam


The country's hardline ruling party wants to legalise marijuana 
cultivation  and give the economy a $10bn boost. Souhail Karam 
reports from Rabat

Mustapha Tahiri, a cannabis farmer in northern Morocco, looks forward 
to the day he can sell his crop without worrying about being jailed. 
If politicians in the country's Islamist-l ed government have their 
way, that isn't too far off.

"I'd be a lot happier if the state leaves us alone, stops the arrests 
and lets us grow the herb," said Tahiri, a father of seven whose 
house in the village of Beni Gmil was raided by anti-drug security 
forces last year. He said he'd be willing to sell his cannabis resin 
for 7,500 dirhams (UKP577) per kilo, about half of what he is now 
getting from middlemen.

At least 800,000 Moroccans live off illegal marijuana cultivation, 
generating annual sales estimated at $10bn, or 10 per cent of the 
economy, according to the Moroccan Network for the Industrial and 
Medicinal use of Marijuana, a local charity.

Morocco, with a population of 32 million, is Africa's sixth-largest 
economy. Legalisation would allow farmers to sell to the government 
for medicinal and industrial purposes rather than to drug 
traffickers. That could boost exports and help reduce a trade deficit 
that widened to a record UKP15bn last year, about 23 per cent of 
gross domestic product. It could also help pacify inhabitants of a 
historically restive region after Arab Spring uprisings toppled 
regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

Politicians in Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane's Islamist Justice 
and Development party (PJD) as well as the opposition Authenticity 
and Modernity, are considering draft legislation proposed by the 
Morocco Network. Mohamed Boudra, a member of Authenticity and 
Modernity and governor of Hoceima-Taounate, the country's biggest 
cannabis-producing region, said his party is seeking to enact the 
bill within three years.

"We have to ensure that any legalisation is done in an optimal 
fashion," said Abdelahim Allaoui, a PJD politician. "We need to 
establish what the medicinal virtues of the plant are, and then think 
of exports, pharmaceutical industry developments, and how to draw 
foreign investment. This is a promising sector for the economy."

Morocco risks losing its investment grade sovereign rating at 
Standard & Poor's after an increase in public wages and subsidy 
spending aimed at preventing social unrest weakened the government's 
finances. Debt as a percentage of GDP rose to more than 60 per cent 
in 2012 from 47 per cent in 2009 and the current account deficit is 
the widest in more than three decades, Finance Ministry data shows.

S&P ranks Morocco one step above junk status and put it on a negative 
outlook in October 2012. Ahmed Lahlimi, head of the country's 
planning agency, said last month that debt is nearing the "danger zone".

Before the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, authorities in Morocco waged a 
slash-and-burn campaign against cannabis farming that reduced planted 
areas to 47,000 hectares from 137,000 hectares in 2003, according to 
the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. They encouraged farmers 
instead to plant orchards and grow olives and almonds, which sell for 
between 70 and 100 dirhams (UKP8) a kilo.

Khadija Rouissi, pictured, a member of the Authenticity and Modernity 
party, has called for a national debate about legalising marijuana. 
"We can't carry on ignoring this elephant in the room," she said.

Cannabis farming is largely centred in the north of the country in 
the Rif mountains, where it started centuries ago. Hamlets and 
villages like Tahiri's nestle on the slopes, and most farmers in the 
region have modest marijuana patches of a few square metres. A 
hectare can yield between 5-6kg of cannabis resin per year, Tahiri said.

"What we want is to provide a viable alternative for the small farmer 
and take him out of the drug trafficking equation," said Chakib 
Khayari, who heads the Nadorbased Moroccan Network. "Then law 
enforcement will only have drug traffickers to worry about."

The Rif area has the highest national rates of poverty, maternal 
deaths and illiteracy rates among girls, according to Boudra, the 
local governor. GDP per capita in the region is 50 per cent of the 
national average.

King Mohammed VI is seeking to reverse that trend and repair the 
legacy of his father King Hassan, who neglected the north during his 
38-year rule, a period marked by political unrest and violence 
against opponents, according to the International Centre for 
Transitional Justice.

"We are considered as an unruly bunch living on contraband and 
illicit trade," said Mohamed Lagmili, a farmer in Beni Gmil. "That 
may be true but we have also been marginalised."

Lagmili grows barley, tomatoes and watermelons to sell in the local 
market on a plot near his brick house. Just behind it is a strip of 
terraced land, planted with cannabis. "You don't want to put all your 
eggs in one basket," he said. The nationalist Istiqlal, the 
second-largest party in the government, says it still backs the 
change in the law after five of its six ministers said earlier this 
month that they were resigning to join the opposition.

"There are villages in the Rif where men are nowhere to be found 
because they are either in jail or wanted by the police," said the 
Istiqlal spokesman Adil Benhemza. "We grow barley and grapes and we 
make beer and wine. Where is the problem? We should have actually 
moved on this a lot earlier."

For Tahiri, who is caring for an ailing mother and struggling with 
rising food prices, legalisation can't happen soon enough. "We are 
not giving up the cannabis trade," he said. "That's the only thing 
that works here."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom