Morocco, Part II: Organic Cannabis Cultivation in Morocco

In the January issue of DOPE, we introduced the current situation in Morocco’s cannabis industry. At present, a dramatic evolution in cultivation methods is taking place—and one emerging trend is organic cultivation. Of course, while cannabis remains illegal under Moroccan and international law, it can’t be officially certified as organic. A small but rising number of farmers are nonetheless adopting modern organic and biodynamic techniques along with a range of other state-of-the-art adaptations, such as feminized seeds, drip irrigation and row planting.

Higher Quality, Less Environmental Harm

As a result, their crops are not only less harmful to the local environment, but higher in overall quality. “Quality” is a very subjective term, but within cannabis circles is generally accepted to cover aroma, flavor, potency and effect.

Morocco, Part II: Organic Cannabis Cultivation in Morocco
Photos by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

It’s important to note that the concept of organic, chemical-free cultivation is hardly new in Morocco. For decades, cannabis grown in soils enriched only with manure was considered to be superior to crops grown in artificially-fertilized soil. However, the key factors preventing the universal use of manure are availability and cost. Goat rearing was widespread in the Rif, the fertile, mountainous region of northern Morocco, decades ago; due to changes in land ownership and agricultural practices, animal husbandry declined and manure became less available and higher in price.

Phosphates and Poor-Quality Soils

With low availability of manure and prohibitively high costs, many farmers are forced to use  phosphate-based fertilizers. Morocco is the world’s leading exporter of phosphates and the third-largest overall producer, holding 75 percent of global phosphate reserves. Thus, phosphate-based fertilizers are abundant, cheap and widely available[1].

Unfortunately, this has led to a scenario in which the majority of farmers utilize synthetic additives on their crops. UNODC reports have estimated that an average of 970 lbs (440 kg) per hectare[2] of chemical fertilizers are used in the Rif each year. Use, and especially overuse, of chemical fertilizers is associated with loss of local biodiversity in both plant and insect populations, contaminated runoff into the local water supply (leading to excessive algal growth and depletion of oxygen). Overuse of phosphates may lead to reduced soil fertility, as excessive phosphorus can prevent plants from uptaking iron and zinc.

Morocco, Part II: Organic Cannabis Cultivation in Morocco
Photos by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Furthermore, the phosphate rock mined in Morocco is known to be very high in cadmium[3], a toxic heavy metal that cannabis shows remarkable efficiency in uptaking from the soil[4]. Thus, hashish produced from cannabis fertilized with phosphate-based fertilizers could contain excessive levels of cadmium. Of course, due to the illegality of the industry, none of the hashish exported to Europe each year is analyzed for their residual heavy metal content, or indeed analyzed for safety at all.

Increased Water Usage

Another pressing concern regarding standard-practice cannabis cultivation in Morocco is misuse of water. Cannabis is a thirsty crop, and as Rif farmers have switched from the traditional kif landrace to new hybrid varieties, it’s becoming thirstier still.

Farmers are having ever-deeper wells dug on their land to take advantage of diminishing groundwater supplies, and are constructing huge reservoirs and tanks throughout the Rif. Many farms use sprinklers to distribute water to their crop—an extremely inefficient method, which causes huge losses due to evaporation. New cultivation methods emerging include drip irrigation systems that allow precise quantities of water to be piped to individual plants, reducing potential evaporation loss dramatically. But this isn’t a solution, as such irrigation techniques may also encourage expansion into areas that may not have been previously cultivable.

Organic Techniques, Ancient and Modern

However, organic farming offers other ways to reduce water loss and maximize efficiency. One of the most important concepts in organic farming is ensuring soil retains water effectively. This is typically achieved by spreading a layer of organic mulch such as hay or manure on the soil , which contains abundant moisture and nutrients. As well as directly adding moisture and nutrients to the soil, this layer protects it from the direct rays of the sun, which prevents evaporation of water and desiccation of soil. Use of mulch is one of a handful of traditional techniques designed to limit water loss; another interesting example is the use of stone bunds. These are essentially low dry-stone walls composed of piled stones, which are constructed along the contour lines of slopes and help reduce soil erosion as well as water loss.

Morocco, Part II: Organic Cannabis Cultivation in Morocco
Photos by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

To complement these traditional techniques, some farmers are now using new and unusual additives such as seaweed, algae sprays, enzymes, mycorrhizae and beneficial bacteria to help improve soil structure and water retention. Of course, many of these substances have added benefits of increasing availability of macro and micronutrients to the plant itself, or boosting the plants’ resistance to pests and disease.

TLC Equals THC!

We had the good fortune to visit a farm run by a European and a Moroccan working in partnership, whose cannabis was all grown according to organic principles. As well as growing organically, these farmers are paying close attention to quality control across the board—they grow individual plants in specially-prepared planting holes with a thick layer of mulch, each plant receiving up to one liter of water daily.

Of course, the varieties grown are all modern, commercial and high-yielding; it’s very unlikely this degree of expensive, laborious care would be undertaken for a kif crop, given its lower yield and potency. When harvesting, they cropped each plant individually and laid them on plastic sheeting rather than on bare soil; when drying, plants were hung indoors and not on roofs in bright sunshine. The hashish produced was sieved multiple times through stainless steel and nylon screens, using static tech to ensure purity is as high as possible.

Morocco, Part II: Organic Cannabis Cultivation in Morocco
Photos by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Results That Speak For Themselves…

On this farm as at most others, plants are lightly sifted to produce the very finest, purest grade of hashish. Next, plants will often be sifted again more vigorously; finally, they will be “beaten” with sticks to break up the flowers and release as much of the remaining resin as possible.

Beaten hashish usually contains more plant material than gently-sifted hashish, and is usually a darker color and of lesser potency. But the sample of beaten hashish (made from Clementine Kush) we saw on this farm was of comparable quality to any of the finest, gently-sifted grades we’ve previously observed. Its color was extremely pale, blondish brown; it had a clean, distinct, citrus fragrance and its texture was soft but firm, with none of the excessive stickiness that “new” Moroccan hash often demonstrates.

A Bright, Organic Future?

As the trend towards legalization and regulation of the cannabis industry continues, Morocco will be subjected to increasing socioeconomic pressures. Already, remaining competitive is challenging, and its primary European markets are demanding ever-higher quality for the cheapest possible price.

As Europe continues to regulate, allowing for the development of legal domestic markets that will no doubt be subjected to increasingly rigorous quality control, Morocco’s main chance at remaining competitive lies not in the mass production of poor-quality, cheap hashish fertilized with potentially dangerous chemicals, but in the production of high-quality, small-batch organic products.

Morocco, Part II: Organic Cannabis Cultivation in Morocco
Photos by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

[1] USGS 2013 Minerals Yearbook, Morocco and Western Sahara. (2013).

[2] UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). (2003). Maroc. Enquête sur le cannabis 2003, Vienna: United Nations.

[3] European Commission. (2013). Science for Environment Policy In-depth Report: Sustainable Phosphorus Use.

[4] Girdhar, M et al. (2014). Comparative assessment for hyperaccumulatory and phytoremediation capability of three wild weeds.




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