A middle-aged man is standing by the street corner in the dusty, fading light. His hands are tucked into the pockets of his jeans, eyes scanning back and forth for customers under his watch cap.
“Hashish? Kif?” he whispers as we near. Our only offer so far was in the raucous, snake-charming square of Jamaâ El Fna—not the most surreptitious place to buy hash—so we nod. “Cameras,” he says, pointing up as we follow him into the cramped, narrow alley.
He leads us to the entrance of an opening that disappears under crumbling concrete riads on all sides. It’s quiet here, and dark. He bends down and pulls out a smooth brown pebble from his cowboy boot, turning it over between his thumb and forefinger before flicking his lighter beneath it. A milky white smoke begins to rise from its surface, releasing a pungent smell that is as sweet and rich as it is unmistakable.
We attempt to negotiate, but he won’t budge from 100 dirhams ($11) a gram, four times the going rate in Tangier.
“Welcome to Marrakech,” he says, disappearing around the corner as the muezzin’s evening call to prayer begins to ring throughout the city.
The Kingdom of Hash
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Morocco is the world’s largest producer and exporter of cannabis resin, producing an estimated 700 metric tons during the 2015 to 2016 growing season. Once processed into hashish, its value may have equaled up to 23 percent of Morocco’s $100 billion GDP.
While technically illegal in Morocco since its independence in 1956, cannabis has a storied history in the region dating back to Arab conquests beginning in the seventh century. Since the 1700s, Morocco’s mountainous Rif region in the north became an epicenter of production, to this day producing a majority of the nation’s cannabis. According to the United Nations, Morocco exports as much as 1,000 tons a year, serving 80 percent of European hash smoker’s needs and almost a third of the world’s supply. If you’ve bought hash in Amsterdam, chances are it came from here.
Somewhere around 700,000 locals depend on the cash crop made famous by the likes of the Rolling Stones during the '60s and '70s. The progressively minded King Mohammed VI has largely allowed the cultivation of cannabis in the economically depressed region, but pressure from the U.S. and E.U. led to a haphazard campaign to replace cannabis farms with fig, olive and almond trees instead. So far, it hasn’t made sense to switch.
“The eradication of cannabis production should not be the goal of development programs: It must be an indicator of their success,” said Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, a research fellow at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. “The farmers who make a living from it will eventually decide themselves to abandon an economic activity that isn’t profitable.”
The profitability of the crop also attracts drug cartels and jihadist networks, putting farmers in an uncertain position between inconsistent law enforcement and extortionary criminal networks.
"This is everything I own. I use it to buy grains, wheat, oil, soap, school books, pay for electricity,” said Abdelouaret El Bohidi, a local cannabis farmer. “If they take this from me, I will lose my mind. I won’t have anything left to feed my children.”
Efforts have been made over the past couple of years to partially legalize cannabis. A major opposition party, the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), supported a movement called “Maroc Cannabis 2016” that would legalize its use for medicine, textiles and other materials. While the effort is floundering after the resignation of its leader Ilyas El-Omari, the topic has become mainstream.
TelQuel, a French-language weekly published in Casablanca, advocated to legalize hash entirely, no concessions, in 2006. Its editor, Ahmed Benchemsi, estimated that Moroccans smoke around 1.1 billion joints a year—a whopping 60 joints a year for every adult. By legalizing it, he said, Morocco could reduce corruption, bring in tax money and attract tourists to the neglected region.
“How can it be illegal when so many people do it?” he said. “You can't criminalize such a large part of society.” But in such a deeply religious country, with 93 percent of its citizens affiliated with a religion, and 99 percent of those being Muslim, doing so would be difficult.
Alcohol, which is banned by Islamic law and considered haram, is even harder to come by and can only be found at a few licensed bars and shops. Our searches for “alcohol” on Google Maps were, unsurprisingly, not as helpful as we hoped. Cannabis, however, occupies a bit of a gray area shared by parlor drugs like tobacco and caffeine. Some religious leaders forbid it, others don’t, depending on their interpretation of the Quran. Whatever your position, it was certainly much easier to get, and cheaper.
Sitting in cafes and tea salons throughout Morocco—an apparent national pastime—men in wizard-like djellabas can be seen sipping clear glass cups of thé à la menthe as they roll a spliff and chat with their buddies. Its rich, pungent smell weaved a tapestry of ease throughout the day as stray cats lounge in pools of sunlight and the speed of life slows to the lumbering gait of a passing donkey cart.
On the winding, labyrinthine streets of Morocco’s ancient souks, black and white interpretations seem to be left to scholars and lawmakers as life, as it is lived, goes on like it has for centuries.