In the final part of our series on the recent changes to the cannabis industry in Morocco, we’ll take a closer look at the new extraction methods gaining popularity among the farmers of the Rif. This new development, in combination with innovations in modern and organic cultivation techniques, could help Morocco maintain its position among the world’s top suppliers of cannabis derivatives for many years to come. However, it’s clear that the challenges facing the industry are severe and widespread, and that innovations are necessary for many farmers otherwise at risk of losing their livelihoods.
Supply, Demand and Quality
As we’ve described in our previous articles, the Moroccan hashish industry has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. A relatively young industry, it emerged in the 1960s, largely in response to European demand, and dramatically intensified in the 1980s. In those initial decades, it transitioned from a small-scale phenomenon to an extremely valuable, ubiquitous system of mass production.
In the early years, the hashish produced in Morocco was typically small-batch, artisanal and made to a high standard of quality. By the 1980s, the market was flooded with “very large quantities of very low-quality powder,” and Moroccan hashish increasingly began to suffer from a poor reputation on the international market. This trend has continued up to the present day. Alongside this, cannabis laws in some European countries have relaxed and domestic production of high-quality cannabis has significantly increased over the last decade or so. European consumers now have greater availability of connoisseur products and demand for Moroccan hashish has seriously declined. By the early 2010s, the farmers of Ketama and Bab Berred had begun to accumulate stockpiles of unsold, poor-quality hashish, and some began to seek new ways to maintain their income.
An Influx of European Influence in Morocco
Europeans have had involvement in the Moroccan hashish industry since its earliest inception, and have continued to heavily influence the industry over the decades. As the largest buyers of Moroccan hashish, Europeans are uniquely positioned to affect the industry in Morocco, through direct investment, variations in demand and dissemination of new ideas, techniques, equipment and modern, high-yielding cannabis varieties.
Over the years, many lasting relationships between Moroccan producers and their long-term European clients have been established. In some cases, Europeans rent land from or enter into partnerships with Moroccan landowners, and are directly involved in the production of cannabis and hashish. The nature of Moroccan-European business affiliations varies widely, but typically the European partner provides capital, seeds, technical knowhow and equipment. The European partner may own or have interests in a coffee shop or cannabis social club, or perhaps a black-market destination for the hashish produced.
European expertise is now arguably one of the most sought-after business commodities in the cannabis industry in Morocco. Not only do they provide the bulk of the knowledge needed to improve the standard of traditionally-produced Moroccan hashish, they also bring entirely new methods of cannabis extraction.
Cleaning Up the Dry-Sift Technique
A few years after European investments and an influx of high-yielding seed varieties began, a minority of Moroccan cannabis farmers started to adopt modern techniques to make high-quality, highly potent cannabis extracts. During our fieldwork, we witnessed the heightened care and attention given to the traditional process for making sieved hashish, which remains by far the most important commercial activity in the Rif.
To make such high-quality “dry sift” hashish, the cannabis is carefully harvested and dried—contrary to the usual method of piling freshly-cut plants on the ground, where they pick up dust, and the drying method of simply piling plants on a hot roof in the sun. The cannabis may be hand-trimmed to remove the leaves, and after drying may be frozen in order to solidify and embrittle the trichomes. When sifting, “static tech” may be used—a technique whereby the trichomes are attracted to a static charge, separating them from any impurities. When all steps are performed with the utmost care, producers can yield dry sift hash of extremely high purity, with over 95 percent trichome heads and less than five percent impurities in the very best examples.
The Rise of Modern Extraction Methods
Additionally, modern extraction techniques are now also becoming more popular, such as Ice-O-Lator or “bubble” hash, butane hash oil (BHO) and rosin. Reports of the use of industrially-purified solvents such as butane gas have been sporadically popping up since the 1970s at least, in Morocco, Afghanistan and various other hashish producing regions. The Ice-O-Lator technique, originating in the Netherlands in the late 1990s, has been used on many occasions in Morocco since then.
However, the explosion in popularity of high-strength cannabis extracts (which began in around 2010, with the ongoing trend towards legalization throughout the United States, before reaching Europe very soon afterwards) has led to a consequent uptick of interest in these forms of extraction in Morocco. According to producers we spoke to, Ice-O-Lator is typically made directly from cannabis, but BHO and rosin are usually made from good-quality sieved hashish. The expected yield from processing hashish of the utmost purity (95 percent+ trichome heads) into BHO or rosin could be as high as 80-90 percent by weight. One European contact operating in the Rif reported yielding up to 80 percent return at best, with an average yield of somewhere around 60 percent.
How this translates in terms of absolute value is not clear, as a market for Moroccan extracts in Europe has not yet been fully established. A gram of good-quality Moroccan hashish sells for around €8-16 ($10-20) per gram in European coffee shops and social clubs, while a gram of rosin or BHO could fetch anywhere between €40-80 ($50-100). That’s an obvious increase in value, although it’s also likely that Moroccan extracts will command an overall lower price than European extracts derived from indoor-grown cannabis.
Uneven Adoption of New Extraction Methods
Of course, not every farmer in the Rif has adopted these new techniques simultaneously. In fact, since modern extraction techniques are mostly foreign-introduced, require technical knowledge and cost money to set up, their adoption rate and scale is still limited. To become a producer of high-quality, modern cannabis extracts, a comparatively high initial investment is needed. For example, vacuum ovens (used to purge extracts of residual butane) typically cost €1000 ($1225) or more, electronic rosin presses may cost several thousand euros, while closed-loop BHO systems may cost tens of thousands.
On top of this, several of our contacts reported extraction equipment being refused entry by Moroccan customs officials when attempting to import it from Europe, sometimes leading to significant financial losses. Furthermore, it takes time for word to spread among farmers that the new techniques work and are commercially successful. Farmers are understandably fearful of changing their methods, making new investments and putting themselves at further risk in times when their incomes are already suffering. Lastly, access to European expertise is by no means universal, and many farmers may not have the means or opportunity to take advantage of it. Limited adoption of new techniques may be due more to their inaccessibility than to ignorance or fear of change on the part of most Moroccan farmers.
What’s Next For Moroccan Hashish in the Global Market?
It is all but impossible to find reliable statistics on the Moroccan hashish industry or imports of hashish to Europe, as the illegal nature of the industry (along with the political sensitivity of the issue) preclude open and direct analysis. The UNODC has reported that cannabis cultivation (and therefore hashish production) declined by up to two thirds between 2003 and 2013. However, it appears that the introduction of high-yielding varieties and improved crop care techniques have acted as a powerful counterbalance. Thus, even if total crop area has reduced, the amount of hashish that can be produced per hectare potentially increased by an estimated three to five times.
Morocco is clearly still a top contender in the global hashish trade, and as market forces evolve with the worldwide trend for legalization, it’s clear that producers in the Rif will not all be left behind. However, adoption of new practices may now be the only means of survival, and a portion of farmers may not be able to afford or access the necessary resources. For those farmers and their families, the future is far from certain, particularly in an area that offers so few alternatives.