Action is required to keep farmers on side and prevent traffickers from laundering proceeds through the legal market.
Morocco has long been ranked as one of the world's largest cannabis producers. In June last year, Parliament adopted a law to regularise the plant's production for medical, cosmetic and industrial purposes, while production and consumption for recreational purposes remained strictly prohibited.
The new legislation governs all aspects of cannabis regularisation, from cultivation conditions to the import of seeds and export of products. But delays in implementing it create frustration and mistrust between farmers and the government - and opportunities for traffickers to continue their trade. This will affect both the country and the region.
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 in a booming international legal market for cannabis. The policy change comes in the wake of global shifts regarding cannabis production. In December 2020, for example, the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs reclassified cannabis under an international listing that recognises its medical value. Morocco supported this.
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 licit economy.
Delays in implementing the law create frustration and mistrust between farmers and the government
In March, the government identified Al Hoceima, Chefchaouen and Tétouan as eligible for legal cannabis cultivation, with the possibility of expanding to other provinces once the process is more established. These three areas account for Morocco's largest cannabis production and are the most important sites for illicit cultivation. They are also home to some of the country's poorest communities - showing the government's intention to alleviate poverty by shifting production to the licit economy.
However, just over a year since the law was passed, the pivotal agency meant to regulate the sector has yet to be established. Delays have been partly due to the September 2021 parliamentary elections, which saw major political decisions put on hold until after the polls.
Last year was also a turbulent political year. The kingdom engaged 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.
Professor Jallal Toufiq, Head of Morocco's National Centre for Drug Abuse Prevention and Research, told a 2021 panel discussion that the need to allocate financial, technical and human resources to the new agency probably also contributed to the hold up.
Speaking on the same panel, Kenza Afsahi, a sociologist working on the cannabis economy in the Rif region, said that allowing enough time was crucial for laying the right foundations. This included raising awareness about the changes among all stakeholders, including the medical community, and ensuring that farmers could adhere to production regulations.
The export potential is limited, given that the international market for medicinal cannabis appears to be saturated
Even accounting for these factors though, the rate of implementation remains slow. Moroccan investors, such as the company CBD Rif, have publicly criticised the delay and are impatient to participate in the lawful cannabis market.
The wait is creating uncertainty, and several key questions remain unanswered. For example, to what extent can Morocco's future legal cannabis market - for export or national consumption - absorb the current production level? The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that herb and resin production exceeded 24 400 tonnes in 2018.
The export potential 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.
The transition will change Morocco's cannabis landscape, with ramifications for crime in North Africa
And while Morocco will retain a strict ban on production for recreational use, demand is expected to remain high 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, making law enforcement difficult and allowing traffickers to take advantage of the 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 now becoming urgent. Rabat's slow pace of implementation is fuelling uncertainty and mistrust among the farmer communities who are vital in this transition. Specifically, small farmers worry that they will be left out, fearing competition from powerful investors.
The lack of progress is also causing concern outside the country, given that Morocco's regularisation process is likely to have regional implications. The transition will change the landscape for this valued commodity in Morocco, with ramifications for criminal activity in North Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe as networks are forced to adapt. This is a space to watch.
Raouf Farrah, Senior Analyst and Tasnim Abderrahim, Analyst, Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime
This article was first published by ENACT.