The grass that heals starts its journey to Europe

THE MOROCCAN HARVEST: It looks like a bumper harvest, writes Elizabeth Nash, starting a series on marijuana in Morocco

Chefchaouen - The young woman flashed a smile and waved a cheery greeting as she approached across a stubbled field. She was bent double under a swaying burden of newly cut kif, the cannabis plant that produces the resin or hashish known throughout Europe as Moroccan black. The luxuriant fronds waved as she walked, sending fierce gusts of a pungent, heady aroma wafting on the breeze.

We had trekked for more than three hours up mountain paths behind the ancient Berber town of Chefchaouen in Morocco's northern Rif mountains, clambering among fragrant pines to reach precipitous limestone rocks. I wanted to see the kif harvest, and Mustafa (not his real name) took the opportunity to take me to the village where his family had some land.

The cultivable land around the little mountain hamlet was covered with dark green cannabis, or Indian hemp. We walked amid fields of kif, whose delicate serrated leaves brushed my shoulders. Densely-packed tips exuded a pungent gummy goo, and broke off in my fingers with a succulent "ping".

Mustafa warned me sternly to lose my little souvenir before leaving the area. Cultivation is not illegal - no Moroccan government has dared to provoke a revolt among the warrior Berbers by banning their favourite agricultural activity - but possession and trafficking is severely punished.

Farmers predict that 1997 will be a bumper year.

"From the amount of land under cultivation, and the quality of the plant, I'd say we were in for a bigger crop than usual," reckoned one observer. "The sun and the rain came at the right time and in the right quantities."

In coming weeks, hundreds of tons of this season's Moroccan black will start its clandestine journey across the Mediterranean through Spain and the Netherlands, sub-divided from dealer to dealer with a bigger markup at every step, to end up for sale in London or Manchester at 50 times the price paid to small producers around Chefchaouen. Up to 70 per cent of hashish entering Britain is reckoned to originate from this remote but populous region, in an illegal trade that is prospering, despite efforts by the authorities to stamp it out.

The Grass That Heals, Allah's Chocolate and Madame Tranquille are among the local names, but, speaking in the Spanish lingua franca of the north, Mustafa called it simply La Planta - the plant.

It was Friday, and as we approached an ancient mosque, a dozen or so men who had gathered for prayers were sitting quietly under the fig trees in their long cream robes having a smoke. They showed me the long wooden pipe that unscrews into three handy pieces, with its tiny bowl into which they pressed a thimbleful of this year's kif mixed with last year's tobacco. It was, they agreed, going to be a good year.

All around, bundles of plant were laid tidily on the flat roofs of the villagers' houses, or on the ground, or on the little makeshift fences of tangled branches that delineated individual plots and stopped the goats from wandering.

Some of the stalks were being pecked by chickens, a good sign, Mustafa said. "When the chickens eat the plant they lay good eggs and more often."

We strode on and up, past a few rows of tomatoes and peppers, and a wedge of land devoted to maize. Many villagers do not even bother to grow subsistence crops, which need careful tending and watering. They prefer to grow kif - which flourishes without great attention - and barter at the market for staples like potatoes and onions. Mustafa thought there seemed far more land devoted to kif than when he last visited some years back.

Even the local agricultural authorities concede kif is twice as profitable as alternatives such as wheat, and that hefty subsidies will be necessary to persuade farmers to grow alternative crops. "We have nothing else," the villagers say. There were few signs of affluence.

We were invited into the one-roomed house of Mustafa's relatives, a young couple with three children, and offered syrupy mint tea. Kif fronds peeped over the hole in the roof that served as a skylight, but his kinsman complained at the lack of electricity. They boiled up the tin teapot over a butane gas cylinder and said that at night they had only gaslight. It was harsh and bright and made it difficult to adjust to the darkness, uncomfortable for a people who navigate mountain ranges by the moon and stars.

As we walked on across the mountain, looking down on the clusters of houses, we waved to a man sitting on his roof, carefully plucking off the leaves to keep to smoke at home, leaving the close-packed seeds and pollen heads - the eyes. In coming days, these would be laid over a fine straw net for the resin to seep through to be collected and pressed into dark brown tablets of hashish or Chocolate.

The best quality hashish, the so-called Sputnik Double-zero, was from this first natural draining process. Then the farmers would gently tap and bruise the plant with a stick to produce more, though of inferior quality. A thousand kilos of plant produces 1kg of average hashish or between 300g and 600g of the superior stuff.

Local traders would later comb the region, buying up the blocks, often loading them on mules for the 30- or 40-mile journey north through mountain passes to the sea, where bigger dealers, perhaps the Italian mafia or Spanish networks assisted by Britons on the Costa, would assume the risky - but immensely profitable - business of shipping the hashish, strapped into 30-kilo bails, to markets in the north.

On our way back down to Chefchaouen - whose name means "look at the horns of the mountain" - we ran the gauntlet of a group of smiling young goatherds, harrying their charges and tootling on their flutes. And as we neared the town, we came upon a wedding party, raucous with the music of strings and trumpets. Some little girls giggled and pranced in gold-threaded caftans and one paused to hitch her skirt clear of the ground, then skipped down the cobbled steps in her pointed velvet slippers.

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