RABAT, July 8 (Reuter)  Morocco and the European Union have set up a joint
``guidance council'' to steer investment projects valued at up to $610
million to try to replace cannabis growing in the country's northern
provinces, a Moroccan official said on Tuesday. 

The council, composed of ambassadors of EU countries and officials of the
staterun Agency for the Economic and Social Development of Northern
Provinces (AESDNP) ``held its first meeting in Rabat to examine immediate
investment projects worth 5.8 billion dirhams ($610.5 million),'' Hassan
Amrani, head of the AESDNP, told reporters. 

Morocco presented 71 feasible projects which would create new jobs, boost
productivity of local fisheries, agriculture, and the tourism industry,
Amrani said. 

Amrani said that local and foreign private businessmen would be involved in
these projects. 

``We expect the European community to participate at a level of 2.4 billion
dirhams of the total amount to speed up the upgrading the Rif region's poor
economy,'' he said. 

According to an AESDNP report, the remote northern mountainous RIF region has
a population of six million people with average unemployment of more than 20

The government plans to invest up to 15.5 billion dirhams in a fiveyear plan
to open up the region by building new roads, dams, electricity and
telecommunications networks and lay down the basis of industrial and
agricultural development, Amrani added. 

An estimated 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) are annually cultivated with
hashish whose harvest is transformed into canabis resin and most of it
illegally exported to Europe, a Moroccan drug expert said. 

Western experts estimate funds generated annually from cannabis smuggling at
up to $2.0 billion but officials decline to comment on the issue. A British
drugs expert last week estimated the annual cannabis crop in Morocco at
between 1,500 and 3,000 tonnes. 

To improve its image abroad, Morocco recently drew up a draft law which will
raise the penalty for drug trafficking to up to 30 years in jail and fines to
up to 800,000 dirhams ($86,000), the interior ministry said. 

``Morocco's struggle against drug trafficking is also based on international
cooperation (needed) because of the tight links between drug smuggling, money
laundering, crime and terrorism...international solidarity is necessary to
eradicate this curse,'' the ministry said earlier. 

Last year, Moroccan security forces seized 103 tonnes of cannabis bound for
Europe. More than 18,000 drug traffickers were arrested, including 342
foreigners, most of them Europeans, the ministry added.