Legal cannabis in Morocco is opposed by both conservatives and organized crime.
Rabat – After Morocco’s historic “yes” vote on cannabis at the UN last Thursday, the path towards legal cannabis has widened. However, obstacles still exist. Morocco supported declassifying cannabis from Schedule 4, which contains the most dangerous drugs deemed to have no medical use.
Morocco’s vote recognized the medicinal value of cannabis, a move that many saw as evidence Morocco could be on a path to legalization. In the midst of an economic crisis driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, Morocco could see cannabis as a way to boost tax revenue and stimulate the hard-hit tourism sector.
Producers in Morocco illegally export roughly $8.8 billion of the cash crop annually, according to BBC estimates, and even a modest tax on the product could bring hundreds of millions in foreign currency into Morocco’s treasury. However, opposition to legalization comes from two remarkable bedfellows; traditional conservatives and leaders of organized crime.
In order to investigate the obstacles and opportunities on Morocco’s potential path to legalization, Morocco World News spoke to Abdellah Eid Nizar. Nizar is a progressive political activist and co-founder of the Forum of Modernity and Democracy (FMD) and regularly speaks to young Moroccans on complex topics including Western Sahara and cannabis legalization.
Long overdue decision
For Nizar, Thursday’s UN vote was an important, but long-overdue statement regarding Morocco’s intentions. “I regret that we had the change to open a national dialogue seven years ago, five years ago and again four years ago in 2016,” Nizar lamented. “We had the chance to do this without waiting for a UN decision or vote, we had a chance to do this between Moroccans.”
Electoral politics and misinformation have postponed this important national dialogue, while other countries have now fully legalized the substance.
“Political games have turned the cannabis debate against Moroccans,” Nizar explained. “There are a lot of people who benefit from the fact that it is illegal: Those who sell it or own land where cannabis is grown, they have a lot of connections.” Legalizing cannabis would require these people to pay taxes and conform to Morocco’s labor laws.
Cannabis is currently flowing out of Morocco untaxed and without the obligation to fairly treat the farmers who produce it. “There are these people who benefit from the illegal market and those that benefit from using cannabis as a political trick against other political parties,” Nizar analyzed.
However, to Nizar, Morocco’s vote at the UN confirmed the validity of the arguments of those Moroccans who have argued in favor of legalization for the last seven years. “I’m proud that we have been talking about this for seven years,” Nizar said, adding, “we have been trying to start a national debate on the issue.”
“It’s a good step, but it should be reflected in our national debate and our laws,” Nizar told MWN. “If it’s not reflected in our laws, it will be meaningless and useless.”
Momentum for change
While obstacles continue to exist, the current economic context provides momentum on the issue. “The COVID-19 crisis could be a very good reason to start legalizing it for medicinal reasons.” This would help people that are currently working in an illegal industry, people in prison because of non-violent activities but it would also help the state, according to Nizar.
Morocco does not profit from money laundering and the illegal informal economy that the illegal cannabis industry fuels. “It costs us billions,” Nizar stated.
Nizar explained that “the current crisis could be a good opportunity to create another source of income, but it won’t be easy.” The leaders of organized crime elements that run the illegal industry have extensive connections within the country’s institutions, he added. “Besides that, there is the daunting task of convincing the majority of Moroccans, even if it is for medicinal reasons.”
For years, conservative politicians have fed the Moroccan public the story of a domino effect that implied that a vote for medicinal cannabis is just the first step towards legalization for recreational use. This opinion, which a majority of Moroccans hold, is remarkable, as millions regularly smoke cannabis.
“This is a contradiction I do not understand, because I am not a sociologist,” Nizar joked.
It is clear who opposes cannabis legalization efforts in Morocco, but there is also reason to be hopeful.
Soon Morocco’s commission tasked with finding a new national development model will publish its findings, which could discuss the cannabis issue. They are likely to talk about it, “because it is a subject that really matters for Morocco’s future, for the state and for thousands of families across the country,” Abdellah Eid Nizar commented.
The commission has said it will publish the report and present it to King Mohammed VI in early January at the latest. “The difficulty is starting a national debate about cannabis amid COVID-19 and its associated economic crisis,” Nizar told Morocco World News. The publication of the report’s findings could trigger an important and long-awaited national debate, according to the rising politician.
It can force political parties to include it in their electoral programs. Positive signals in support of a legal cannabis industry from the palace could also help tremendously, according to Nizar.
Morocco’s largest political party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), has regularly used the cannabis issue to attack opposition parties. As long as the head of government is a member of the PJD, he can block resolutions on the issue from passing. Yet, there are parties and a large segment of progressive civil society that support legalization for medical reasons.
Economic experts and sociologists who participate in parliamentary studies have provided scientific and economic arguments that legalization would benefit Morocco. “These arguments have become even more relevant amid the COVID-19 economic downturn,” Nizar explained.
Setting aside ideologies
He hopes that these scientific arguments could change opinions within Morocco’s leadership. He sees the existence of legal cannabis in the Netherlands, where many Moroccans live, as evidence that ”If we as Moroccans set aside our ideologies and differences, the benefits to the country and the people are obvious and change can happen.”
“It would allow us to produce medicines domestically, attract medicinal investors and producers to invest in Morocco, and we could increase exports and local prices would decrease,” Nizar stated. “Furthermore, there are 40,000 people and their families [who] are taken advantage of by organized crime while fearing police prosecution, which keeps them trapped in their villages.”
“Legalizing medicinal cannabis,” Nizar advised, “could save the lives of 40,000 people and their families while providing them a legal livelihood while benefiting the state and the Moroccan people.” As a first step “we need to talk about legalizing medicinal use,” before talking about a possible recreational market for the millions who smoke Moroccan cannabis at home and abroad.