A Short History of the Cannabis Industry in Morocco

This post is part of a series on the evolving cannabis industry in Morocco. For a full list of all articles in this series, please click HERE

 Although cannabis may have arrived in Morocco by the 7th century, it was not until the 1960s that large-scale production of hashish began. Since then, Morocco has become one of the world’s largest suppliers of hashish. Over the years, the industry has undergone various dramatic changes.

First Introduction of Hashish to Morocco

The precise date and circumstances of the introduction of cannabis to Morocco is not known, but it is thought that it arrived with one of the multiple Arab Conquests of north Africa that occurred between the 7th and 15th centuries.

Pollen records indicate the presence of small quantities of cannabis from 300 AD, but pollen did not become abundant until around 1000 AD. It is also possible that cannabis arrived in Morocco in the form of fiber hemp from Greece, where it had grown since at least 400 BC.

In fact, the Moroccan landraces that would develop over the centuries may be hybrids between this fiber hemp and drug varieties arriving from Asia.

A Short History of the Cannabis Industry in Morocco

The Rise of the Rif

From around the 16th century on, cannabis was grown throughout Morocco, with no recorded “hubs” of cultivation. Plots of cannabis were small, and intended for personal use and local distribution.

The harvested cannabis was widely smoked in the form of kif (dried, seedless female flowers mixed with black tobacco). Cannabis was also made into traditional sweets, such as “majoun”, and mixed into cosmetics and skincare preparations.

By the end of the 18th century, the mountainous Rif region in the north of Morocco began to dominate as a hub of cultivation, notably around the villages of Ketama in the province of Al Hoceima and Bab Berred in Chefchaouen province.

Douars and Dahirs

In 1890, Hassan I of Morocco gave special privileges to cultivate cannabis to five douars (villages) of the Ketama, Beni Seddat and Beni Khaled tribes in the central Rif. Simultaneously, he applied laws restricting cultivation and trade outside of the Rif – cementing the region’s dominance.

In 1912, the French and Spanish established a protectorate in Morocco. The French regulated cannabis production by way of a monopoly, while cultivation continued unhindered in the Spanish-controlled areas that included the Rif.

In 1932, a royal dahir (decree) of Sultan Mohammed V formally implemented laws restricting cannabis production. The French continued to produce cannabis in selected areas, taking advantage of Tangier’s extraterritorial status to process the crop.

In 1956, Morocco gained independence from France and Spain, and prohibited the cultivation of cannabis nationwide – although continuing to tolerate it in the traditional cultivation areas of the Rif up to the present day.

A Short History of the Cannabis Industry in Morocco

The Hippie Trail

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Western tourism to Morocco intensified dramatically. While not technically on the “classic” hippie trail that stretched from Western Europe to Southeast Asia, Morocco certainly attracted thousands of tourists of similar mindset.

To meet the rapidly growing demand for cannabis from tourists and international smugglers, the techniques practised in the fledgling Moroccan industry soon transformed, from artisanal and small-scale cultivation of herbal cannabis, to vast, monocultured fields and mass production of hashish.

It is possible that hashish was unknown in Morocco prior to this influx of Western tourism. According to the novelist Paul Bowles in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1974, it was “only the Americans and British who’ve come in the last 15 years who have shown them how to make it…The hashish in Morocco is an American product and it’s sold to Americans. The only thing they had here was kif and majoun”.

A Short History of the Cannabis Industry in Morocco

The Industry Matures

When the farmers of the Rif first began to produce hashish, it was from small plots of cannabis, with individual plants well-spaced and spread out. Soils were regularly watered and enriched with manure, and harvested plants were slowly dried indoors to preserve terpenes and trichomes.

However, this situation would soon change. Western tourism was only one facet of the emerging trend towards globalization that is still intensifying today – which also brought increased opportunity for international export, and the need to supply a growing, relentless, and primarily European demand. Soon, small family operations were outcompeted by larger, consolidated interests.

By the late 1980s, Moroccan hashish was mostly mass-produced, European customers demanded ever-lower prices, and quality was on the decline.

An Old Empire Faces New Challenges

The turn of the 21st century saw a dramatic shift in favor of legalization and regulation of the cannabis market throughout the world. Domestic cultivation of cannabis in Europe flourished, and Moroccan exports began to experience increased competition for market share.

Mass-produced, poor-quality hashish has suffered from the most dramatic decline in demand, as consumers can now opt for higher quality at relatively reasonable prices.

In response, Moroccan farmers began a process of modernization. Feminized commercial varieties from Spain and the Netherlands were introduced to the Rif on a massive scale, and intensive farming techniques such as piped irrigation and row-planting began to emerge.

In 2018, it’s clear that process has not yet extended throughout the Rif, but is centered around the town of Bab Berred. The more famous cultivation zone of Ketama has not experienced such obvious change.

A Short History of the Cannabis Industry in Morocco

In future posts on Morocco, we’ll take a deeper look at the reasons behind these dramatic changes, why they are happening at different rates throughout the Rif, and the socioeconomic effects they may produce. 

Related – Morocco, Part II: Organic Cannabis Cultivation in Morocco