Morocco's king shows tolerance as late rains bring record hashish crop

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The Independent Online

Morocco's cannabis farmers are enjoying a bumper harvest this year, thanks to a combination of late rains and an atmosphere of greater tolerance under the young King Mohammed VI.

Morocco's cannabis farmers are enjoying a bumper harvest this year, thanks to a combination of late rains and an atmosphere of greater tolerance under the young King Mohammed VI.

The growers produce some 2,000 tonnes of hashish a year, despite demands from the European Union for the government to stop it.

"Year-in-year out, at harvest time the police would sweep through our farms, rounding up peasants," said one grower, Abdallah, after the first week of cutting cannabis on the banks of the river Laou. "This year, there've been no arrests, and the gendarmes have left us alone."

After decades of isolation under Hassan II, the new mood of optimism is palpable in the rebellious Berber mountains. Farmers in their thousands cheered the king when he tripped through the cannabis region last year in a white Cadillac. He has left his capital, Rabat, for weeks on end, preferring to conduct his affairs in Tangiers, a city made rich from the hashish trade.

Despite European Union demands for a crackdown, after one year on the throne, the king - whose long-term aim is to secure EU membership - has done nothing to curb drug cultivation. An EU-funded report says hashish earns the kingdom $3bn a year, and it remains its prime source of hard currency.

A recent parliamentary report says 60,000 hectares of land are given over to cannabis cultivation. Other reports claim that more 120,000 hectares grow behind a camouflage of maize. Bankers estimate this black economy accounts for between one-third and a half of the country's total earnings.

This year the figures could be even more striking, but the prosperity of the cannabis farmers contrasts starkly with peasants elsewhere in the kingdom, who are suffering under a second year of drought. The cannabis weed is far more resistant to drought than wheat.

Brussels has abandoned an eight-year-old plan to persuade farmers to substitute goats for cannabis, after discovering that production had spread from its traditional enclave around Ketama, north to the Mediterranean coast and south to the foothills of Fez. On 19 July, the Moroccan authorities announced their largest seizure, 19 tonnes of hashish in the back of a van, an amount little short of the total seizure for the whole of last year. Spanish police arrested Portugal's honorary consul in Tangiers for hiding hashish in his car.

For the past three years, Spanish customs officials have seized 300 tonnes a year. Intercepting the traffic is proving as hard as keeping boat people from crossing the eight-mile Strait of Gibraltar. Clandestine migrants raise $600 a head for a place in a rickety boat by smuggling shoeboxes of hashish. On dry land, many head for drug-friendly Holland.

The government blames Morocco's human and narcotic exports on under-development. It says mass EU investment is the price of ending the deluge of illegal migrants and drug traffickers to Europe. Ten miles from Europe, the city's literacy and child mortality rates are the worst in North Africa.

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