Producing up to 3,000 tonnes of cannabis resin every year, Morocco is now the world's leading exporter of this illegal substance. Some 70 per cent of the cannabis entering Europe, including Britain, comes from Morocco, so it is hardly surprising that EU members are pressing Morocco to stamp out production, and looking for ways to help it to do so.
In coming weeks, hundreds of tonnes of this season's "Moroccan Black" will start its clandestine journey across the Mediterranean through Spain and the Netherlands, subdivided from dealer to dealer with a bigger markup at every step, to emerge for sale on the streets of London or Manchester at some pounds 2,000 per kilo - 50 times the price paid to small producers in the Rif mountains.
Under pressure from European governments, the Moroccan authorities are stepping up repressive measures against traffickers: last month they increased the maximum prison term from 10 to 30 years, with a maximum fine of 800,000 dirhams (pounds 5,500). More than 18,000 traffickers were seized last year, and 342 foreigners - including 40 Britons - are serving time in Moroccan jails for drugs offences.
The authorities insist they aim to eradicate production of kif, the cannabis plant, altogether, though they dare not infringe the Berbers' ancient tradition of cultivation for fear of revolt. They seek to promote alternative activities such as olive or apple production and eco-tourism, with the help of EU funds.
"Cannabis cultivation derives from poverty, and the problem must be solved in the framework of the overall development of the northern region," the director of Morocco's recently established Northern Development Agency, Hassan Amrani, said this week in Rabat.
"Repression is necessary, but we can't keep it up indefinitely. Our challenge is to find a long-term solution. We must offer an alternative activity for millions who live from kif production, and for that we need support from friendly countries and institutions like the EU."
Europe has committed more than 70 million ecu (pounds 47m) to improving roads and water supplies in the north, and additional support to encourage business, but results are not expected for years, perhaps decades. "We can't talk of a timescale," says Lucio Guerato, the European Commission's representative in Rabat. "How do you persuade people to break the traditions of generations? You have to offer them something guaranteeing long-term prosperity. It's horribly complicated."
Crucial to the success of the Northern Development Agency is the support of the people in the Rif, Mr Amrani says. "Our plan is participative, we work with local people and NGOs [Non-governmental organisations], women's groups and youth groups. The agency has good credibility among the people."
The laid-back days of the Sixties and Seventies, when Europe's hippies wandered through the Rif swathed in chilaba kaftans and puffing their kif pipes, have gone. Local fathers' initial surprised amusement swiftly gave way to the beady realisation that a limitless market existed for their traditional smoke. Within a decade, land devoted to kif had increased tenfold and now covers between 50,000 and 74,000 hectares. A trafficking network has sprung into shape that extends throughout Europe and brings an estimated $2bn (pounds 1.16bn) a year into Morocco. Moroccans insist that hashish mostly leaves the country in the hands of British, Dutch or Italian trafficking clans.
Tens of thousands of unfinished high-rise apartment blocks in the northern city of Tangier are thought to have been financed by drug-profits as a means of money laundering. A police investigator nicknamed "Lieutenant Colombo", sent to Tangier in 1992 to declare war on cannabis, detained dozens of suspects and seized tons of drugs, but lasted only months in his post.
Morocco has no law to combat money-laundering, and the authorities deny that it takes place. But US investigators suspect that a blind eye is being turned towards drug-smuggling. "Producers and large-scale traffickers continue to operate with virtual impunity due to budgetary constraints and widespread corruption," a US State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement said in a report in March 1996.
Some observers in Rabat say stamping out kif production, even with the best will in the world, is wishful thinking doomed to failure - especially with a quickening debate in Europe about possible decriminalisation of hashish. Some fear that improvements of infrastructure in the Rif could in the short term even help the traffickers. But international diplomatic sources say Rabat's latest effort to develop the north is the best so far, and they are prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.Reuse content