Morocco said to produce nearly half of the world’s hashish supply

Morocco said to produce nearly half of the world’s hashish supply

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Jane’s Intelligence Review
November 2005, Vol. 17 n° 11, pp. 32-35.


In the first of two reports on hashish production and trafficking in the Rif area of Morocco, Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy examines the cultural, political and economic factors that have engendered cannabis cultivation in the area.

(Part two: Morocco’s smuggling rackets: hashish, people and contraband, Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 1 December 2005)


The Rif region of Morocco is home to probably the largest acreage of cannabis cultivation in the world, and the hashish produced makes the country the world’s largest producer and exporter of the drug.

The Rif itself is estimated to be the source for 42 per cent of global hashish production as cannabis cultivation in the region has expanded rapidly there since the 1980s, in part due to increasing European demand. The practice has also been tolerated for both political and economic reasons, allowing it to become the region’s main economic activity.

In 2003, in its first ever Cannabis survey, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that 134,000 hectares of cannabis were cultivated in Morocco, that is, a little more than the estimated area cultivated with opium poppies in Afghanistan in 2004 (131,000 ha).

However, hashish production in Morocco differs greatly from opium production in Afghanistan and Myanmar, and from coca production in Colombia, for no armed conflict challenges the writ of the Cherifian kingdom over its territory. Although cannabis cultivation in Morocco is illegal, in the area a complex set of colonial, political and economic factors has resulted in an entrenched tolerance of the cannabis plant.

That said, the rapid growth of cannabis cultivation in the Rif since the 1980s means that hashish production is now the main economic activity in the Rif area, and, according to European Union estimates and the work of Spanish agronomist and authority on cannabis cultivation in Morocco, Pascual Moreno, hashish production is probably Morocco’s main source of foreign currency and is certainly a major contributor to the kingdom’s gross domestic product.

Such economic factors, combined with the sustained demand for hashish in Western Europe, mean that cannabis cultivation in the Rif now presents an economic, political, and even ecological challenge, not only for the Rif, but also for Morocco as a whole, and for the international (and particularly European) community.

Hashish production

The UNODC estimated in 2005 that, in a regional division of cannabis resin production, 42 per cent of global hashish production (7,400 tonnes in 2003-2004) originated from North Africa, where only Morocco produces hashish. The UNODC also estimated that during the 1999-2003 period, Morocco yielded 31 per cent of the hashish produced by 90 countries, before Pakistan (18 per cent), Afghanistan (17 per cent), Lebanon (9 per cent), and India (9 per cent).

Hashish is a psychoactive drug made from the resin of the female cannabis plant. It can be obtained through two different processes, depending on techniques employed in various production areas. In Morocco, the resin glands of the cannabis inflorescence, where tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), its main psychoactive substance, is concentrated, are collected by sieving after the plant has been harvested and dried. Sieving was also the technique favoured in the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon, where Red Lebanon hashish was produced in large quantities up until the early 1990s. The other technique, only used in some parts of Asia, is hand rubbing. Much less technical than sieving, it consists of rubbing the flowering cannabis branches back and forth between the palms and fingers until the resin builds up on the hands. Such a process occurs in India, Kashmir included, and Nepal.

Sieved hashish is much easier and faster to obtain than hand-rubbed hashish since, according to botanist Robert Connell Clarke in his book Hashish!, one kilogram of sieved hashish can be obtained in only a few hours versus 10 to 25 grams of hand-rubbed hashish by one collector during a full working day.

Such a difference not only makes sieving much more suitable for commercial-scale production but it also makes it more potent since almost no resin is left on the plant. An estimated 130,000 hectares of cannabis devoted to the production of sieved hashish clearly makes Morocco the world’s largest hashish producer and exporter but also potentially the producer of the world’s most potent hashish. Potentially only because sieving “also makes practical the collection of very large quantities of very low-quality powder”, something that the fast-growing Western demand undoubtedly provoked. In fact, Western influence not only spurred cannabis cultivation in Morocco, through colonialism, it also initiated hashish production in the country at the onset of the hippie culture in the 1960s.

Cannabis cultivation

The cannabis plant is thought to have taken root in Morocco’s Maghreb region in the seventh century AD in the wake of the Arab invasions.

However, historians seem to agree that cannabis cultivation only started around Ketama, in the mountainous Berber-inhabited Rif area north of Fez, in the 15th century. Much later, in the 19th century, Sultan Moulay Hassan (Hassan I) officially authorised cannabis cultivation for local consumption in five douars, or villages, of the Ketama and Beni Khaled tribes, in the Senhaja area of the Rif.

In 1912 the kingdom was split into two protectorates by Spain and France, and the right to cultivate cannabis was again granted to a few tribes, this time by Spain. In 1920, Abdelkrim el-Khattabi unified the Berber tribes of the Rif in their resistance to Spanish authority and set up the independent Republic of the Rif (1921-1926), before being defeated by a French-Spanish coalition.

Abdelkrim el-Khattabi had successfully advocated against “un-Islamic” cannabis cultivation and consumption during the five years that the independent Republic of the Rif existed. But after 1926, according to the 1957 United Nations Bulletin of Narcotics, the restored Spanish power “set up a zone of toleration to the north of Fez”, around Ketama in Al Hoceima province, “in order to allow adaptation to the new economic order of tribes. That zone was gradually reduced until, in theory, it was abolished in 1929, although in fact, production continued at a high level, particularly during the last few years of the protectorate. The main economic problem of substitution of other crops was in practice never solved”. Far from being solved the problem has only worsened.

Since France was a signatory to the 1925 Geneva International Convention on Narcotics Control, organised by the League of Nations, cannabis cultivation was progressively prohibited in the French protectorate. In 1932, production was forbidden by a dahir, a royal decree, except for cultivation undertaken around Kenitra (Gharb) and Marrakech (Haouz) for the Régie des Tabacs et du Kif, a multinational company, largely controlled by French capital, which benefited from the extraterritoriality of the international zone of Tangier where it was conveniently based. Only in 1954 was cultivation completely prohibited in the French protectorate. In 1956, when Morocco gained independence, cannabis prohibition was extended to the former French and Spanish zones. However, Mohammed V decided to condone cannabis cultivation in the five historical douars of the Ketama and Beni Khaled after the prohibition led to conflict in the Rif.

Historical cultivation in the Rif

The Rif is one of the Berber areas of Morocco, and Berbers, as shown by the 1921-1926 episode, have resisted foreign rule whenever possible (Arab rule included).

The Rif was part of the bled as-siba, the “land of insolence” that stayed out of the sultan’s control (bled al-makhzen) until 1912 when it was absorbed into the Spanish Protectorate. As the anthropologist Clifford Geertz explains in his study The Integrative Revolution, the establishment of the Arabised, Islamic reformist Cherifian dynasty at the end of the 17th century and, later, the colonial rule of Morocco, reinforced the distinction between bled as-siba and bled al-makhzen. First, notes Geertz, the Cherifian dynasty tried to reduce “the field of Berber customary law in favor of Koranic law, to repress saint worship and cultic practices, and to purify Islamic belief of local pagan accretions”. The French colonial power increased this distinction after the decade during which the proconsul Lyautey kept the tribes in check and reinforced the Makhzen bureaucracy, only to be defeated by the tribal uprising led by Abdelkrim al-Khattabi. Philippe Pétain, the successor of Lyautey, initiated the “so-called Berber Policy, dedicated to drawing a sharp distinction between Arab and Berber and isolating the latter from the influence of the Makhzen entirely”, notes Geertz.

Starting in 1956, Berber chiefs, such as the Interior Minister of Mohammed V and the governor of the province of Tafilalet, promoted a kind of tribal primordialism and neo-traditionalism aimed against the Istiqlal nationalist party, the administrative arm of the throne that had reinstated the Islamic judicial system. Loyalty to the king, however, was never challenged. Sporadic Berber uprisings occurred, particularly in the Rif from 1958 to 1984. In 1958 the region rose in rebellion against the government and the uprising was put down by a military expedition composed of two-thirds of the Moroccan army, which, under the command of then-Crown Prince Hassan, even resorted to napalm bombardments. These uprisings were partly caused by economic deprivation, since Moroccan Berbers make up the majority of the poorest classes in Morocco, and since Berber regions have not seen the same development aid as Arabised coastal and urban regions. Moreover, cultural frustration relating to the status and teaching of the Berber language added to economic grievances.

Cannabis cultivation in the Rif is intrinsically tied up with this long, complex and violent history of rivalries, tolerance, and conflict, and is thus well entrenched in the region, both politically and economically. The right to cultivate cannabis in the Rif was first granted to five douars by Sultan Moulay Hassan. Cultivation was further allowed under the Spanish Protectorate, except for the short period during which Abdelkrim al-Khattabi argued against it.

Even Mohammed V tolerated cannabis cultivation at the onset of Moroccan independence, for tribal discontent with cannabis prohibition had to be quelled. People from the region of Ketama now either assert that Mohammed V orally allowed them to cultivate cannabis around the village of Azilal, or that a 1954 dahir gives them the official right to do so. However, as stressed by the Moroccan economist and sociologist Kenza Afsahi, the aforementioned dahir clearly does not allow such a thing. Notwithstanding the illegality of cannabis cultivation in the kingdom, its tolerance continued under the reign of Hassan II. This in spite of the “war on drugs” that he declared in September 1992, which, as the UNODC’s 2003 survey showed, fell short of the planned intention to step up interdiction, prosecution and economic development alternatives to wean the Rif from the lucrative drugs trade.

Ongoing growth

Cannabis cultivation in the Rif extended over probably less than 10,000 hectares in a limited geographical area until the early 1980s, when, as a result of complex economic, and some geopolitical, factors, the area under cultivation expanded rapidly.

The economic crisis that unfolded in Morocco in the late 1970s and early 1980s hit especially hard in the Rif Mountains, where the mechanisation of agriculture was never satisfactorily developed and where emigration opportunities proved insufficient to compensate for the lack of employment. At the same time, growing European demand for hashish – that developed during the 1960s and 1970s – turned the Moroccan cannabis economy from producing kif, a mixture of chopped marijuana and tobacco, to producing hashish. In addition, conflicts in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Syria, and increased counter-narcotics efforts in Lebanon and Turkey, affected their respective hashish productions, creating a balloon effect that benefited Moroccan production.

Morocco was one of the very first destinations on the “Hippie Hashish Trail”, early in the 1960s. While kif was produced and smoked in Morocco at that time, the only hashish available was most likely from Lebanon. It is not certain when and how hashish was first produced in Morocco, although various accounts point to a likely start in the mid 1960s when Westerners tried making sieved hashish around Ketama.

Growing Western demand and Morocco’s closeness to this booming consumer market spurred hashish production in the Cherifian kingdom, especially in the Rif, where the Berbers have a saying that “only Kif grows on the land of Ketama”. According to Dutch and European Union official estimates, cannabis was grown on around 25,000 hectares in the mid 1980s, on 60,000 hectares in 1993, and on 75,000 hectares in 1995. In June 2005, according to Robert Connell Clarke, “pollen counts in Southern Spain revealed that huge quantities of cannabis pollen were blowing north from the Rif Mountains, 42 km across the Straits of Gibraltar and up to 160 km inland”.

During the 1980s and 1990s, cannabis cultivation expanded outside of the traditional growing area of the Senhaja country, into the Ghomara and Jebalas regions and also to the east of the province of Al Hoceima. Since the turn of the century cannabis cultivation has reached unprecedented surface areas and geographical limits, as shown by the estimated 134,000 and the 120,500 hectares cultivated in 2003 and 2004 respectively.

Both ecologically and economically, cannabis cultivation and its rapid increase in the Rif Mountains are understandable. The Rif is one of the most unsuitable regions for intensive agricultural production: a rugged relief of steep slopes and poor soils, combined with heavy but irregular rainfall compounded by a lack of irrigation infrastructures, make most crops other than cannabis not worth the labour invested. According to the UNODC, rain-fed cannabis cultivation brings seven to eight times more revenues than barley cultivation; 12 to 16 times more when irrigated. Moreover, demographic trends require any agricultural production to be as economically viable as possible: at 124 habitants per square kilometre human density is three times higher in the Rif than in the rest of the country.

Increased land pressure combined with a lack of economic development in the region has led to two distinct geographical expansions of cultivation – first, at the expense of forested areas, with thousands of hectares of forest being burned every year to clear new areas for cannabis production; and also in the valley bottoms where better soils and better access to water are available.

In 2003, the survey conducted by the UNODC showed that 96,000 families, or 804,000 people, were involved in cannabis cultivation: 66 per cent of the rural households that were surveyed and 6.5 per cent of all the Moroccan agricultural households, i.e. 2.5 per cent of Morocco’s total population in 2002. In terms of surface area, 1.5 per cent of the total arable land of Morocco was covered by cannabis in 2003. Up to half cannabis growers’ income is provided by cannabis production, however, as is always the case when illicit crops are concerned, cannabis growers receive far less income than might be expected. The annual per capita income generated by cannabis production has been estimated at US$267, compared to the GDP per capita of about US$1,260 in Morocco in 2002.

During the last decade cannabis cultivation has spread in and outside of the Rif, the economic appeal of a cash crop proving increasingly detrimental to forest preservation as well as to other agricultural activities. Cannabis monoculture has developed considerably, to the point of becoming a subject of ecological concern. The extensive use of fertilisers causes soil pollution, insufficient or inexistent fallow periods cause soil depletion, and deforestation, increasingly perpetrated to accommodate new cannabis fields, increases soil erosion.

In the absence of a strong political will to address the economic and demographic issues of the Rif area, cannabis cultivation will soon prove to be unable to make up for the lack of development the region has long suffered.


Estimating Cannabis yields
In 2002, about 735 tonnes of cannabis resin were seized in Western Europe and 66 tonnes in Morocco. Spain, Morocco’s closest European neighbour, made 57 per cent of total worldwide hashish seizures in 2001, indicating both the primacy of Moroccan hashish production and the importance of Spanish territory as a transit zone for traffickers.

In its 2005 World Drug Report, the UNODC estimated that, in 2003-2004, cannabis was produced in 163 countries; noting however that “most of these countries produce solely to satisfy local demand”. In only a few countries is cannabis cultivated primarily for export and consumption abroad: in Morroco’s case most of its hashish production is exported to, and consumed in, Western Europe.

In terms of gross volumes of “cannabis herb” production, the UNODC has estimated that North America (Canada, US, Mexico) accounted for 33 per cent (14,000 tonnes) of global production in 2003-2004, followed closely by Africa with 28 per cent (12,000 tonnes). South and Central Asia only accounted for 9 per cent and 5 per cent of the global output.

However, these estimates are only for “cannabis herb”, and not for hashish, a cannabis derivative that is produced only in some countries, including Morocco. The production of hashish must be added to that of “cannabis herb” if an estimate of global cannabis cultivation is to be obtained. Very few statistics are available regarding cannabis cultivation in the world and when UNODC conducted its first surveys of cannabis production in Morocco in 2003, it estimated the area under cultivation at 134,000 hectares, yielding 109,000 tonnes of “gross cannabis” with the potential to produce 3,070 tonnes of cannabis resin (hashish). However, such figures raise questions since UNODC’s World Drug Report 2005 states that the 2003-2004 global production of “cannabis herb” – different from “gross cannabis” – is estimated at 42,000 tonnes.

Actually, estimating cannabis crops has always proved extremely difficult. The UN itself warned in documents older than the two aforementioned reports that “There is little reliable information on the extent of cannabis cultivation. Though cannabis is the most widely abused illicit drug, actual knowledge of the extent of production is much more limited than for other narcotic plants”. In The Botany of Desire Michael Pollan reminds us that this has been true even in the country that started a global war on drugs in the 1970s: “In 1982 the Reagan administration was chagrined to discover that the amount of domestic marijuana being seized was actually a third higher than its official estimate of the total American crop”.

With its survey on Morocco the UNODC produced the first serious estimate of cannabis cultivation and hashish production in any given country. But this survey now raises questions regarding global estimates of cannabis cultivation and the share taken by Morocco in the global output. In fact, the “gross cannabis” mentioned by UNODC in its survey on Morocco is the whole female cannabis plant and thus cannot be compared to the “cannabis herb”, or marijuana, referred to by UNODC in its World Drug Report. Here the difference is important because the cultivation and production techniques employed across the world depend on which final product is sought: marijuana or hashish.


About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).