Chefchaouen, Morocco – On the steps of the Spanish Mosque, tourists and locals are smoking kif, a mixture of cannabis and tobacco, while admiring the view of Morocco’s famous “Blue City” in the northern region of the Rif.
For centuries, the mountains of the Rif, which extends from the city of Tangier up to the eastern border with Algeria, have been a centre of cannabis farming. Morocco is to this day the biggest producer of cannabis resin in the world, according to the United Nations.
In front of the mosque, Mourad*, a father of six children in his 40s, watches the groups of tourists to see if they might be customers for the drug he has been producing in the countryside for almost 20 years.
“After the independence of Morocco, the hippies came to the mountains and taught us how to harvest the cannabis plants into cannabis resin [hashish],” Mourad says. “Personally, I learned from my family and from my friends.”
When someone agrees to buy his product, Mourad goes down the hill and hides behind bushes to avoid the stares of passers-by and finalise the deal. Cannabis is widespread in the region, but its sale for recreational use remains illegal, and those found guilty – both buyers and sellers – may be imprisoned.
But a slow liberalisation is taking place. In July 2021 in an effort to improve the economy of one of the poorest regions in Morocco, the kingdom decided to officially approve a bill legalising the production of cannabis for industrial, medicinal and cosmetic uses in the three provinces of the Rif while also creating a National Regulation Agency for Cannabis Activities (ANRAC) to monitor the production of legal cannabis.
“Official representatives came to the village in March to discuss the new bill with us and take the names of the people who might be interested,” Mourad says. “For my part, I do not really know what I am going to do. If I am forced to switch to legal production, I will, but if most of my neighbours continue to produce cannabis illegally, I will do like them.”
“Of course, I don’t like living in fear, and I would rather have a legal activity. At the same time, I honestly don’t think most farmers are going to follow the bill because we don’t feel like it will benefit us. But I am aware this might be my last year producing cannabis illegally. For my own sake, I will probably have to switch to legal production soon,” he adds.
A restive region
As night falls, Mourad leaves the modest house he built after getting married and climbs higher into the mountains to reach a second cannabis plantation that he owns. He sleeps there every night to make sure no one comes to steal his precious commodity.
In the Rif, economic opportunities are indeed more limited than the rest of the country due to the mountainous geography and historically difficult ties with the state. Those issues led in 2016 to the Hirak Rif Movement, popular uprisings that called for socioeconomic reforms, before being ultimately clamped down on by security forces.
Since the establishment of the Republic of the Rif by Abdelkrim Khattabi in 1921 as well as popular and military uprisings against the monarchy after independence, the Rif people have been perceived as hostile towards the Moroccan state. Many feel they have not benefitted from Morocco’s economic development, and more infrastructure, schools and job opportunities were three core demands of the 2016 protest movement.
According to figures given by the Ministry of Interior to the Agence France-Presse news agency in 2013, at least 700,000 people, including 90,000 families, lived off the production of cannabis in Morocco.
Legalisation leads to financial losses
In Bab Taza, a city 25km (15 miles) south of Chefchaouen, Anouar’s household is one of them.
“Where I live, there is no chance the police will come. It’s too much walking!” Anouar says, laughing, while climbing the road that leads to his family house, a big property that distinguishes itself from the rest of the neighborhood.
“My dad was the one who started producing cannabis, but today, he is dedicating himself to his other passions,” Anouar says. “Now, it’s my brother who takes care of it, and I help him when I have the time.”
Anouar’s family owns two big cannabis plantations, which have allowed the family to achieve some kind of social mobility and plan to build a new residence next to their current one.
“Switching to a legal production of cannabis would make us lose money because it is the government that is going to set the prices,” Anouar says as he faces a road that, according to him, is used by drug traffickers to transport the family merchandise.
“Producing illegally is not that dangerous when you have a trustworthy network of buyers. For our part, we sell the cannabis to four family friends only, whom we have known for years, and they deal with bringing it to other cities in the country and to Europe,” Anouar says.
Up to now, the local farmers who have made the choice to grow cannabis legally are still few. By May, only about 400 of them had received authorization to begin, the head of ANRAC says.
According to Khalid Mouna, a Moroccan anthropologist, professor and author with a focus on the Rif and kif, the small-scale local farmers might indeed become the ones who will be left behind by the new law.
“Experiences in other producing countries that have switched to the legal market show that the first ones to pay the price are the poor farmers,” Mouna explains. “The legal market represents a financial risk and a differently structured network, things poor farmers do not necessarily master.”
With the harvest season beginning in September, the cannabis farmers of the Rif will have to face what might be a conundrum. Either they enter the new legal framework set out by the government or remain operating outside the law.
“We are used to being outlaws,” Anouar says. “Living in fear and outside the system is something we have been doing for decades anyway.”
*For safety reasons, interviewee names have been modified.