Moroccan Roll

Moroccan Roll

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

High Times
June 2006
pp. 58, 59, 60, 62.


A geographer and research fellow at the CNRS in France, Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy spent years studying opium production in Asia—from Afghanistan to Burma—before visiting Morocco to observe how cannabis and hashish production compares with opium farming. He traveled through the Rif Mountains of northern Morocco in August 2005, during late cannabis harvest time, eventually reaching the legendary town of Ketama, where the world-famous hashish of the same name originates.

 What had long been assumed by international observers was at last confirmed in 2004 by the first Cannabis Survey ever conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which revealed that 134,000 hectares of cannabis had been cultivated in Morocco in the previous year, yielding 42% of global hashish production, and establishing once and for all the North African nation’s claim as the world’s leading producer and exporter of hashish. Because hashish production remains illegal in Morocco it is more or less confined to the mountainous Rif region, where a long tradition of political tolerance of cannabis cultivation continues due to a complex set of colonial, political, and economic factors. Since the 1980’s, local cannabis cultivation has exploded, along with hashish production—now clearly the main economic activity of the Rif—otherwise one of the least economically developed areas of Morocco.

Compared to South Asia, the history of cannabis propagation in Morocco is relatively recent, dating back to the Arab invasions of the seventh century A.D., with most historians agreeing that cannabis cultivation didn’t reach Ketama—the mountainous Rif area north of Fez—until the fifteenth century. The official right to cultivate cannabis in the Rif was first granted in the nineteenth century to five douars, or villages, by sultan Moulay Hassan and the policy has been continued throughout the region’s long, complex, and violent history of rivalries and instabilities, eventually emerging as a well-entrenched industry, both politically and economically.

This tolerance was extended during the rule of the Spanish Protectorate set up in 1912 when France and Spain overruled the Moroccan monarchy, except for the brief period (1921-1926) during which the local Berber tribes united against the Spanish authority, created the independent Republic of the Rif, and opposed cannabis cultivation and consumption. After the separatists were defeated, the restored Spanish power reinstated the zone of cultivation, and even Mohammed V eventually tolerated cannabis cultivation at the onset of Moroccan independence in 1956, in order to quell tribal discontent after earlier announcing a national cannabis prohibition.

Beginning in the 1960s, Morocco became one of the first destinations on the famed “Hippie Hashish Trail,” but in those early days cannabis production was geared towards making kif–a local mixture of two thirds chopped marijuana and one third tobacco, smoked in a sebsi, the region’s traditional long-stemmed wood-and-clay pipe–and the only hash available was imported from Lebanon. No one knows for sure when and how hashish was first produced in Morocco, but various accounts point to the arrival of Western hippies, who started making sieved hashish in Ketama after learning the technique in South Asia. Cannabis cultivation stayed under control in a limited geographical area until the early 1980s, when output was increased in response to the growing European hash market that had developed over the previous decade, a demand which also transformed the Moroccan cannabis economy from producing kif to producing hashish for export.

Over the next two decades, cannabis cultivation increased and spread outside of the traditional growing areas at a time when wars in Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Syria, plus US-led counter-narcotics efforts in Lebanon and Turkey negatively affected those nation’s respective hashish industries, spurring Moroccan production. In the last five years, cultivation has reached unprecedented acreage and geographical limits, as shown by the 134,000 and the 120,500 hectares grown in 2003 and 2004 respectively, proving that cannabis tolerance continues today under the reign of Mohammed VI and despite the declaration by his father, Hassan II, of a “war on drugs” in September 1992.

Cannabis cultivation and hashish production in Morocco

Both ecologically and economically, cannabis cultivation in the Rif Mountains makes sense, especially considering the local Berber saying that, “Only kif grows on the land of Ketama”—a rugged relief of steep slopes and poor soils, watered by heavy but irregular rainfall, where crops other than cannabis often don’t yield enough to be worth the labor invested. According to UNODC, in the Rif, rain-fed cannabis cultivation brings seven to eight times more revenue than barley cultivation; twelve to sixteen times more when irrigated. Such cultivation begins in early January in the lowlands, and mid-March in the highlands, and continues until the end of the summer. Cannabis farmers plow their land as soon as the snow has melted, so that seeds can be sowed (5 to 30 kg of seeds per hectare) from mid-February to late April. Hoeing and weeding begin between early April and mid-June, prior to the removal of male plants in June and July. And the harvest happens between mid-July and early September, whenever the blazing sun, the heat and the lack of water cause the green plants to turn yellow and wilt.

Cannabis production techniques have changed considerably in Morocco over the past few decades. Back when plants were grown for local and national consumption—mostly for kif smoking—cultivation was less intensive and plants better tended. Small plots could be conveniently and sufficiently watered and, once harvested, stalks were put to dry slowly inside houses, thus maintaining the quality and fragile potency of the resin. Cannabis crops used to be fertilized with manure, in autumn, after harvest, and in spring, prior to sowing, since cultivation was conducted on acreages limited enough. But now that cannabis cultivation has spread outside of the Rif mountains, and cultivation not only occurs on steep slopes where irrigated terraces have been built, but has now spread to entire valley bottoms, cannabis farming has expanded to such an extent that manure availability is far below would be needed to fertilize the entire cannabis crop of the Rif. Instead, crops now receive chemical nitrate, potassium and phosphate fertilizers, which negatively affect cannabis quality and potency and pollute the already exhausted soils of the region.

So paradoxically, we find more intensive cannabis cultivation brings declining quality as plants are now grown very dense with the help of chemical fertilizers, but with insufficient water resources that force Moroccan farmers to harvest the rain-fed crops when they start withering—not when they’re fully matured. As a matter of fact, in 2003, according to UNODC, 88 % of cannabis cultivation in Morocco was conducted on rain-fed plots (bour) despite the fact that, on average, irrigated plants yield nearly twice as much “gross cannabis” (1,270 kg/ha) as unirrigated ones (750 kg/ha). Clearly rainfall has a major influence on cannabis yields and resin quality, not only on strictly rain-fed plots but also, during recent years of drought, on irrigated ones fed by water pipes, motorized water pumps, and water sprinkling.

Of course, such growing conditions affect not only the quality of the cannabis crops but also that of Moroccan hashish, a process frequently further compromised by drying and storing techniques developed to match a growing European demand. Cannabis produced for export on a large commercial scale no longer carefully and slowly dries inside shady houses, but instead dries in sunlight on rooftops. Plants dry twice as fast in sunlight than indoors, but important physical qualities also deteriorate as the sunlight over-evaporates the terpenoids that supply the resin’s quality and potency. These days, most Moroccan cannabis will only be stored indoors after the completion of this fast-drying-process, where it will wait another 1-6 months to ensure the resin dries completely prior to sieving the resin glands (chira) and pressing hashish.

Resin collection involves a very simple sieving process of threshing and rubbing plants back and forth on a single pore cloth sieve. By using several different sized sieves, resin powder of varying qualities will be obtained through this process. According to UNODC, in 2004, 100 kg of dried “gross cannabis” yielded an average of 2.82 kg of resin powder, divided in three consecutive sievings of different extraction percentages yielding three different qualities of resin: 1,04 % of resin sieved from dried “gross cannabis” for the first powder quality (sigirma), 0,94 % for the second quality (hamda), and 0,84 % for the third quality (lower quality hamda). Quite a few additional hamda qualities can also be obtained from successive sievings, which means hashish qualities can vary greatly in Morocco, with extraction percentages ranging from 5 % to 0.15 per cent, meaning yields of 4-5 kg of very low “export” quality hashish can pressed from 100 kg of dried “gross cannabis” or 150 grams of high quality hashish, often made under western supervision to the highest standards. THC contents can range from 2-20 %, but according to statistics published in 2004 by the UNODC, most Moroccan hashish—whether seized in Europe or analyzed in Morocco—showed similar average THC percentages of approximately 8.4 %.

Thus, while the fast development of Moroccan cannabis cultivation during the last decades has lead to a fall in cannabis quality and an increase in quantities of hashish produced, it also seems that, overall, hashish quality has improved in that time because of higher care in hashish processing, but only so far as pure Moroccan hashish is concerned. Meanwhile, the growing European demand has encouraged hashish makers and traffickers to alter first-hand hash with henna, animal dung, wax and other contaminants to bulk it out before sale. And so it seems that it is in the Rif mountains that the best Moroccan hashish is likely to be found.

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).