After years of political games the moment has finally come for Morocco to more seriously consider its options regarding the legalization of cannabis.
Rabat – Morocco’s government has finally broken the taboo as it has announced it will discuss the legal use of cannabis.
The news spread rapidly throughout Morocco and across the world as Europe’s largest supplier prepares to possibly take its giant industry out of the shadows.
For decades, organized crime has profited from the lingering taboo and continuous demonization of one of Morocco’s most wanted export products and of a beloved substance by millions of Moroccans.
Conservative voices have long kept cannabis out of public discussions, making it all the more surprising when the government announced it would consider the “legal use of cannabis” at a Thursday council meeting.
Morocco’s governing party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), has long been a staunch opponent of cannabis. Yet, the centrist Islamist party has had a change of heart and is now ardently proposing decisive government action to legalize the use of cannabis.
Ahead of upcoming elections, some see the announcement as a way to undermine pro-cannabis campaign promises by opposition parties, but the development is nonetheless encouraging.
Another possible reason for the PJD’s sudden about-face is a possible behind-the-scenes endorsement for the process by the Royal Palace, which should see any political opposition evaporate.
Head of Government Saad Dine El Otmani will chair the government’s council meeting on Thursday this week, and there are indications that the meeting could have long-term effects on Morocco’s economy and its justice system.
Still, the discussion on the “legal use of cannabis” is not a matter of answering a simple “yes” or “no” question. Instead, the government will have a breath of international examples available to pick and choose from that could define the impact of its decision.
Impractical status quo
The illegality of cannabis currently poses several problems to both Moroccan authorities and citizens alike.
An estimated 30,000 farmers in Morocco remain stuck in their villages, unable to travel because they fear prosecution for producing cannabis. This stunts their development, removes access to vital healthcare, and blocks economic opportunities.
Morocco’s security forces and border guard are tasked with the impossible mission of stopping a roughly $8 billion export market. Meanwhile they spend the bulk of their valuable time prosecuting low-level dealers, casual smokers, and other non-violent “criminals.”
While illegal cannabis drains time and resources from police, it enables organized crime to flourish and profit from the untenable status quo. While Morocco’s cannabis farmers receive a pittance from their professional criminal clients, the profit is made by those who distribute the product domestically and internationally.
Although enormous amounts of state-resources are drained and organized crime profits as a result, the state continues to lose money and control over a market that the BBC estimates to be worth $8 billion.
Untaxed and unregulated, cannabis can easily be bought anywhere in Morocco with millions of casual smokers who break the law for consuming a traditional product.
Meanwhile, the international cannabis market is booming and more countries start to profit from the cash crop while Morocco only incurs costs.
In order to resolve the status quo that servers few and costs many, Morocco has several available models to choose from as it considers legalizing cannabis:
Foreign Investor Model
The easiest to pass, yet least impactful model the government could choose revolves around legalizing cannabis as a medical export product. A version of this model is used in Colombia, Eswatini, and Lebanon. Here, the main goal is to attract Foreign Direct Investment in a tightly controlled export market.
In practice this model would legalize cannabis only for a small fraction of Morocco’s local producers that are able to comply with the standards demanded by international investors. Meanwhile international companies would be invited to grow the valuable cash crop using Moroccan land, water, and expertise.
For most cannabis farmers this model would do little besides introduce international competition, while most locals continue to live under repression and a fear of prosecution.
Morocco’s large domestic market would stay in the shadows and police would continue to waste their valuable time and resources on prosecuting a substance that the government considers safe for use by non-Moroccans.
Local Producer Model
Another available option is a model that aims to support local producers and consumers and emphasizes traditional medical cannabis use. This model would lift a larger section of Morocco’s cannabis farmers out of illegality and offer legal medical cannabis as an alternative to illegal production.
The government would likely establish a government entity that would issue licenses and introduce labor standards that could help those who chose to produce cannabis legally.
This model resembles the approach taken by Thailand, where, just like in Morocco, cannabis has a long history of traditional use.
This model would allow for the creation of health-related products that resemble current legal industries such as production of argan oil and local natural remedies. This model would allow for the creation of cannabis-based clinics for domestic therapeutic needs, as seen in India.
However, little would change for the millions in Morocco who use cannabis in a non-medical way.
Most producers would likely continue to grow illegal cannabis for domestic and international use, which will continue to empower organized crime and drain state resources on prosecution and border control.
Full Legalization Model
In order to fully benefit from the “legal use of cannabis,” Morocco could opt for the model used by Uruguay and Canada. This model would likely take both the investor and local producer models while also incorporating non-medical cannabis into the legal industry.
Their model of full legalization would instantly relieve time and resources spent by police prosecuting non-violent cannabis crimes. It would allow all producers, and people incarcerated for distribution or use, to be released from the sword of Damocles that hangs above all who come into contact with the substance.
Full legalization would mean Morocco can start taxing all of the $8 billion industry and introduce important labor standards to the crop’s production. Farmers would be free to choose whether to produce medical or recreational cannabis, and safely supply international and domestic markets through specific international trade treaties.
While full legalization might be the hardest model to realize politically, it would clearly and completely resolve all the ails that cannabis prohibition brings with it. Organized crimes would lose its control over vast resources, farmers would become valued parts of the national economy, and casual users would no longer be considered criminals.
Tourism would likely get the boost it so desperately needs after a disastrous year that was dominated by COVID-19.
Local cannabis-infused wellness centers and health and beauty clinics could attract a new class of affluent cannabis-enthusiasts while traditional cannabis users could tour vast fields of cannabis plants and enjoy the local non-medical product.
All three models have their risks and benefits. In many ways, legalizing cannabis in Morocco will depend largely on how much of its giant industry the government is willing to take out of the shadows.
If the government opts for a partly legal market as suggested in the first two models, the country will have to live with the hypocrisy of jailing people and ceasing exports of a product that is legal under different circumstances.
It remains to be seen whether the government’s ambition is to once and for all resolve the issue or to opt for a more politically expedient option.
Challenges for Morocco’s legal cannabis industry
One of the most prominent challenges for Morocco’s potential legal industry is competition with other cannabis-producing countries.
The longer politicians debate, postpone or issue long-winding investigative committees, the more market-share Morocco loses. More importantly, the more the government drags its feet, the more innocent victims the continued prohibition will claim.
Additionally, Morocco will have to carefully monitor and influence the use of land and natural resources in cannabis production. Currently an illegal industry is using vast water resources and deforestation that need to be tightly monitored and supported by the government.
If the industry is set to expand it will need to be efficient with water in already water-scarce regions, while preventing deforestation and soil depletion. New solutions such as water harvested from wind or fog, desalination and other technological solutions could become more cost-effective if a fully legal industry is set to benefit.
Another important factor revolves around processing outstanding arrest warrants and clearing prison sentences as cannabis producers and distributors become valuable industry experts. While this will present a daunting administrative task for morocco’s police, it will eventually clear significant time and resources spent prosecuting and jailing non-violent “criminals.”
Another potential sticking point resolves around land-grabs. If Morocco’s government picks an investor-oriented approach or a partial legalization, it could result in foreign legal producers overtaking local land and draining local water sources. Tight management of land rights and stimulating local producers can alleviate such concerns.
The models above are based on other countries’ approaches, yet Morocco could also develop a completely new model. Morocco could consider cannabis social clubs, allowing home-growing and self-cultivation; establishing cannabis farmers cooperatives; or creating a sustainable domestic market.
While the legalization of cannabis holds untold promise for Morocco, the project’s fate is in the hands of politicians. In the end, they will determine whether to completely resolve all of Morocco’s issues with illegal cannabis or to produce a new form of illegality that will target only some of the industry.
With elections rapidly approaching and the taboo on cannabis diminishing, Morocco’s government has the opportunity to solve a lingering issue, free Moroccans from prosecution, and create a booming legal industry. Whether they will, only time can tell.