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Morocco: Marijuana economy goes up in smoke

Former pot culture now being squeezed by Moroccan authorities.

Moroccan farmers destroy marijuana crop
Moroccan farmers destroy cannabis plants under police orders in northern Morocco on June 16, 2006.(Abdelhak Senna/AFP/Getty Images)

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BAB BERRED, Morocco — For generations this remote mountainous town has been the heart of Morocco's cannabis-growing area, where farmers earned a reasonable living from cultivating marijuana.

Although growing cannabis was officially illegal, authorities turned a blind eye and farmers had fields of the leafy green weed.

But now farmers are angry that they are being forced to pay bribes to local police to continue growing the crop.

In this village, in the heart of the Rif Mountains, thousands of farmers protested while the police and the army watched helplessly.

“Long live the king!” chanted the crowd, invoking Morocco’s ruler as a shield from police repression. “Stop stealing from us!”

Thousands of families live off the cultivation of cannabis in this region that stretches more than 11,000 square miles. The growing of cannabis is commonly referred to as "the culture of kif," (kif is a term for the dried bud of the female marijuana plant). Farmers say the area's harsh climate makes it impossible to grow anything else.

Although it is illegal to cultivate cannabis, it remains one of Morocco’s most lucrative sources of income. Morocco is estimated to have grown 53,000 tons of cannabis in 2005, according to the most recent figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Most of the marijuana is processed into hashish. European countries complain that Morocco is the prime source of the cannabis smuggled into their territories.

The Moroccan government claims to be cracking down on hashish production in accordance with several international treaties.

Since 2003, Morocco has received $28 million euros from the European Union to eradicate the cultivation of cannabis. In addition the United States has given $43 million, between 2005 and 2012, to help farmers find new crops to replace marijuana.

In the past year, Moroccan authorities have cracked down on cannabis production using different strategies, including burning fields.

Marijuana is still openly grown in the villages in the Rif mountains but the farmers claim that their already meager income is now being dramatically reduced by authorities who demand bribes to allow the cultivation to continue.

"There are no alternatives in this region — we are currently in the fifth generation of kif culture — this region needs assistance,” explained Abdellah Ljout, a local representative and social activist. “People are not saying they want to cultivate cannabis. They say they want to survive. They are ready to stop if they find another dignified way to earn a living."

Ljout said he thinks the solution starts first with the political will to eradicate the illegal crop in a region where cannabis has been cultivated for more than 100 years.

The Moroccan government — which declined to comment for this story — enforces the law erratically, he said.