Morocco has long been ranked as one of the world’s largest cannabis producers. In June last year, Parliament adopted Law 13-21 regularising the plant’s production for medical, cosmetic and industrial purposes, while production and consumption for recreational purposes remained strictly prohibited.
Law 13-21 governs all aspects of cannabis regularisation, from cultivation conditions to the import of seeds and export of products. But delays in implementing the law are creating frustration and mistrust between farmers and the government – and opportunities for traffickers to continue their trade. This has implications both for the country and the region more broadly.
Morocco is among a small but growing group of African countries (Eswatini, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe) seeking to position themselves within a booming international legal market for cannabis.
This has emerged in the wake of global policy shifts regarding cannabis production. For instance, in December 2020, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the global drug policymaking body, reclassified cannabis under an international listing that recognises its medical value. This was supported by Morocco.
The move is also an opportunity for Morocco’s government to address longstanding grievances with cannabis farmer communities, who for years have felt disconnected from the central government. They have often turned to the illegal cannabis trade when faced with bleak livelihood prospects in the general licit economy.
In March 2022, the government identified Al Hoceima, Chefchaouen and Tétouan as areas eligible for legal cultivation of cannabis under the law, with the possibility of expanding to other provinces once the process is more established. These three areas are presently the most significant sites for illicit cultivation, being the regions with the largest cannabis production in Morocco. They are also home to some of the poorest communities in the country, which indicates the government’s aim to alleviate poverty as it seeks to shift production to the licit economy.
However, a little over a year after the law was passed, the pivotal Agence nationale de réglementation des activités relatives au cannabis, an agency that is meant to regulate the sector, is yet to be established. This important development has been delayed partly by the September 2021 parliamentary elections. In Morocco, any big political decisions are stalled in the run-up to and immediately after an election.
Last year was also a turbulent political year, with the kingdom engaging in a prolonged standoff over the status of Western Sahara, resolving several crises with its closest European partners (Spain and Germany), and breaking off diplomatic relations with Algeria.
Kenza Afsahi, a sociologist working on the cannabis economy in the Rif region who participated in a Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime panel on the topic in May 2021, said allowing enough time was crucial for laying the right foundations. This included raising awareness about the expected changes among all stakeholders, such as the medical community, and ensuring that farmers can adhere to production regulations.
Professor Jallal Toufiq, on the same panel, said the allocation of adequate financial, technical and human resources to the agency had probably also contributed to the hold up.
Nonetheless, even accounting for these factors, the rate of implementation remains low. At the time of writing, the agency’s director still had not been nominated, and there was no clarity on the timeline. Moroccan investors, such as the company CBD Rif, have publicly criticised the delay and are impatient to participate in the licit cannabis market.
The wait is creating uncertainty and several questions remain unanswered, such as the extent to which Morocco’s future licit cannabis market – whether for export or national consumption – can absorb the current level of production. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that herb and resin production exceeded 24 400 tonnes in 2018.
The potential for exporting cannabis is likely to be limited, given that the international market for medicinal cannabis appears to be saturated, according to Moroccan drug expert Dr Khalid Tinasti. So far, there is little information on how much cannabis will be used for treatment and pharmaceutical purposes in the domestic market.
At the same time, while Morocco will retain a strict ban on production for recreational use, demand is expected to remain high, both nationally and in the kingdom’s regional and European markets. This means that opportunities for traffickers will persist.
This could lead to a coexistence of legal and illegal crops, not only making the task of law enforcement more difficult, but opening doors for traffickers to take advantage of this overlap to launder proceeds. Tinasti argues that ‘these groups are deeply entrenched in local communities, which secures them steady and early access to information.’
Decisive action to establish the agency and prioritise engagement with stakeholders and local communities is becoming more urgent. While it is crucial to plan the transition well, Rabat’s slow pace of implementation is fuelling uncertainty and mistrust among the farmer communities who are so vital in this transition. Specifically, small farmers worry that they will be left out, fearing competition from powerful investors.
Concern at the stagnation of meaningful transition is not limited to inside Morocco though. Morocco’s implementation of the regularisation process is likely to have regional implications. This transition will change the landscape for this valued commodity in Morocco, with ramifications for criminal activity in North Africa, the Mediterranean region and Europe, as networks are forced to adapt. This is a space to watch.
Raouf Farrah, Senior Analyst and Tasnim Abderrahim, Analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime