Morocco Moving to Serve as a Model for Cannabis Reform

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

The North African country of Morocco has long been synonymous with cannabis. It has been the biggest supplier of Europe’s illicit demand – mostly for resin form – for many years. According to the United Nations (UN) Office on Drugs and Crime, the northern Rif Mountains region is the world’s top producer of cannabis resin.

Cannabis has long been tolerated in Morocco’s kingdom, especially mixed with tobacco as kif for smoking in pipes – though it has been illegal in all forms since the county’s independence in 1956.

As noted here last year, that has been recently changing, if incrementally. In May 2021, Morocco’s parliament adopted Law 13-21 to legalize cannabis for medical, cosmetic, and industrial uses. More recently, Morocco’s new cannabis agency met to establish a regulatory agency to oversee the cultivation of cannabis for medical, cosmetic, or industrial uses: Last month the National Agency for the Regulation of Cannabis Activities (ANRAC) approved a legal framework to establish a manageable supply chain from cultivation to market, particularly for exporting its cannabis to Europe.

Impetus for Progress

Progress has been building: After the World Health Organization last year changed the status of cannabis for medical research, the Moroccan government in March legalised cannabis cultivation for medical and industrial use in three northern provinces of the Rif region. Between Al-Hoceima, Chefchaouen, and Taounate, approximately 47,000 hectares (over 116,000 acres) have been dedicated for cultivation. Other provinces could follow, according to officials, “depending on the interest shown by national and international investors in activities linked to the cannabis production chain” – a tacit call to action for foreign companies.

Reform has been welcomed by the Moroccan public, with a survey last fall finding 80% percent of Moroccans believing that legalization for medical and non-intoxicating uses will have positive outcomes as Morocco becomes the second Arab country (after Lebanon in 2020) to legalize medical cannabis.

The identified goals for legalization include the social aim “to convert illicit crops that destroy the environment into sustainable legal activities that generate value, money, and employment.” Morocco hopes its legal markets to greatly benefit the region’s commonly impoverished farmers who number somewhere between 400,000 and 1 million, representing an estimated 10% percent of Morocco’s economy. Government projections include estimates for legal cannabis sales to reach between $420 million-$630 million by 2028. Whereas the region’s farmers reportedly received about 4% of the profits from Morocco’s illicit market, they would potentially enjoy 12% of the legal market’s revenues.

Identifying Socioeconomic Goals

The windfalls would include newly created jobs and tax revenues. In its World Drug Report 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated Morocco’s illegal exports to be worth about $8.84 billion (USD). Last year, the government estimated that its domestic cannabis industry could generate between $420 million-$630 million USD of product annually, with 3.1 million customers among Morocco’s population nearing 38 million. 

ANRAC intends to promote social benefits from legal cannabis by organising producers into cooperatives managing and sharing key contracts, and maintaining rights to sell to qualifying processing companies under state oversight. Other aims are to raise living standards for rural women of the Rif, and to leverage the traditional expertise of the region’s farmers as legacy growers. 

Environmentally, legalisation and the adoption of standards for eco-friendly cultivation could help mitigate illicit cultivators’ heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and irrigation systems which cause water stress and pollution.

Raising Its International Profile

Legalisation and its competition could also disrupt and displace the country’s drug lords while meantime moderating a rising potency in Morocco’s illegal cannabis exports, as noted by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in its European Drug Report 2019. Some hope for it to inspire an Arab Spring-style effect, influencing reforms in other Middle East and North African (MENA) states; Morocco’s having been elected the president of the 6th United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-6) for a two-year term automatically increases the international exposure of its cannabis policy.

Since Morocco’s geographical proximity has also led it to become part of the European Union’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) – a mechanism for economic integration between the EU and its neighbours – its legal cannabis market could exceed practical expectations, though conservative interests including the PJD party have been a hindrance, and could regulatorily temper Morocco’s engagement with international markets.

Should Morocco’s cultivators see higher demand for flower than the hashish resin which is more easily adulterated and smuggled in the illicit market, production methods will need to accommodate.

Regardless, Morocco’s momentum towards medical legalisation will encourage international investors. Indeed, if anything, EU markets may need to temper supply which otherwise would lead to price declines. Morocco will need to anticipate and address competition between its legal and illegal industries, and it will need prepare to compete with other, more mature EU feeder markets (e.g., in the Caribbean and Colombia). Still and all, through ANRAC’s initiatives Morocco represents a prime candidate for leveraging reforms to transition from a long-established illegal market to enjoying socioeconomic advantages from the benefits of legal cannabis production.