Legal Cannabis in Casablanca? Morocco Moves Toward Legitimizing Medical, Industrial Markets

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Morocco’s parliament is expected this week to approve farming, exporting, and domestic sales of cannabis for medical and industrial use, marking a policy shift inspired to help impoverished farmers amid the burgeoning legal global market for the plant.

Last week’s decision in the North African kingdom to reverse the illegality of cultivation in a country long known for it follows this past December’s recommendation by the World Health Organization to facilitate medical research. 

Not only has cannabis been traditionally tolerated in the North African kingdom, but the plant’s cultivation in the country’s northern Rif mountains ranks Morocco among the world’s top producers, according to the United Nations (UN) Office on Drugs and Crime, including the top exporter to the illicit European market.

The move is but the latest example of the bureaucratic about-faces being performed in locales which have long battled illicit trade in cannabis by cultivators and smugglers, but now seek to legally prosper from it. In Morocco’s case, the nation spans the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts in North Africa, at its nearest point being separated by nine miles from Spain and Europe. Morocco has been estimated by the UN to supply about 70% of all illicit cannabis in Europe – over 36,000 tons of it in 2017 alone.

Under its monarchical regime and a parliament led for nearly a decade by the Justice and Development Party (PJD) of moderately Islamists, the political posturing in a nation of 36.5 million people has recently balanced between an illicit domestic market worth approximately $6.5 billion annually, and a potential consumer base of 3.1 million residents. Add to that the considerable cost to policing and security: Last week, a reported 9.5 tons of cannabis were seized by police from a frozen foods outside of the national capital of Rabat, the latest example of an exercise in which over 217 tonnes were reportedly seized throughout 2020.

Morocco’s Council of Ministers discussed a draft bill that may well result in legalization, pending approvals. The initiative aims to organise farms into cannabis cooperatives which would sell their crop to local or international processing companies. Proponents suggest that current untaxed profits run at USD $15 billion while being devoid of revenues directly shared with the Moroccan economy, which instead has been limited to comparatively small margins delivered to the farmers themselves.

The preliminary framework calls for the industry to be agriculturally restricted within the established Rif region, require licenses, and allow only Moroccan nationals to participate.  Moreover, it will concentrate on medical, pharmaceutical, and industrial markets, rather than the still-illicit recreational markets which have held sway in Morocco since cannabis was outlawed in 1956. Low-THC CBD products and hemp would also now be permitted.

The move follows nearly three months of speculation after  Morocco’s vote in support at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs to declassify the cash crop from Schedule 4, taken as a signal that Morocco could be on a path to legalization. Particularly in light of post-pandemic economic pains, cannabis has been recognized as a logical boost to a nation which is included in the European Union’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), but largely missed out. For example, while Western Europe’s legal medical imports were valued between €230 million and €280 million in 2019, Morocco has completely missed out on lucrative trade where its illicit products already vastly enjoy prohibited profits.

Despite its relative ubiquity and legendary reputation, cannabis has remained illegal, as many naïve tourists have discovered to their peril. Clampdowns have sufficiently disrupted illegal trade as to influence crime activity in other countries: for example, seizures in Morocco have led to a shortage of supplies in Scotland. Meanwhile, the strength of Moroccan exports have shown a continuous increase since 2009, according to the EMCDDA’s European Drug Report of 2019, showing a response to competition in the illegal market.

With legality should come labour protections for producers, and greater socioeconomic stability in the Rif. Still, some pushback may be expected from within the PJD, and from interested profiteers from organized crime. Advocates of cannabis liberalisation such as Abdellah Eid Nizar of the Forum of Modernity and Democracy have cited  “political games” that kept the industry back, despite earlier initiatives including in 2013, Morocco’s parliament reviewing the economic potential of legal cannabis farming for non-recreational means, and a delayed report on cannabis due to be published in January and presented to King Mohamed VI.

As with Jamaica’s transitioning from illegal to legal cannabis industry operations, Morocco is poised to proceed in offering an attractive investor base to those seeking proximate supplies for the EU market. As well as providing more choice and competition for export markets, it stands to see social benefits at home. By some estimates, cannabis employs 800,000 Moroccans, providing income to 140,000 families, and constitutes 10% of Morocco’s economy. With sub-Saharan African markets such as Lesotho and Uganda opening to global markets, Morocco has a huge opportunity – provided that its past does not impact too negatively on its future.