Trying to please Europe by persuading farmers to grow avocados is not
succeeding

Giles Tremlett in Chaouen, Morocco The Guardian

Dealers off the colourful Outa el Hammam square in the medina were at their
most solicitous. "Hello my friend. You want kif? I have very good stuff, 10
euros, come and smoke some."

It is a scene typical of tourist towns across Morocco: young men selling
kif, the local word for cannabis, to Europeans in the whitewashed alleyways
and low, Andalusian-style arched passages.

But Chaouen, a pretty northern hill town in the midst of the country's
rapidly expanding cannabis fields, is a sharp reminder of how Europe is
losing a futile battle.

Production of kif is now the undisputed pillar of the local economy.

Officially Morocco's biggest foreign-currency earner is tourism, but
unofficially it is cannabis. The land devoted to its illegal production is
doubling every three to five years.

This year's crop will cover 250,000 hectares, an area the size of
Oxfordshire, and twice the size of three years ago, according to a Spanish
agronomist, Pasqual Moreno, who is a European authority on kif cultivation.

"You now find kif fields clearly visible from the roads, with no attempt
made to hide them. The plantations have spread north to the Mediterranean,
south towards Fes, and west towards Larache," he said.

"I have been coming to Morocco for 25 years, and I have never seen it like
this."

Last week agronomists pulled up sticks after trying to persuade farmers of
the Rif mountains to stop growing the plant under a ?750,000 European Union
programme. To all intents and purposes, the programme folded - another
reminder to Europe that it cannot hope to curb an industry whose raison
d'etre is precisely its proximity to a continent that bans cannabis
production while at the same time being home to some 20 million
dope-smokers.

The figures from Mr Moreno, lecturer at Valencia's Politecnica University
and director of the EU's "alternative cultivation" project in Chaouen, are
three times greater than those officially recognised by Morocco.

He based his calculations on local sales of fertiliser, which he said was
used almost exclusively on cannabis plantations in recent years. Consumption
of fertiliser now stands at 300,000 tonnes a year; at one tonne per hectare
of cannabis (and allowing for limited use elsewhere), this gives a figure of
250,000 hectares.

Sown in March, the cannabis seeds were last week just beginning to send up
shoots, providing a clearly visible dusting of light green to the hillside
fields.

Far cry from hippies

In the sowing season, and at harvest in July and August, busloads of migrant
labourers are brought up the steep, winding roads from nearby Tangier and
Tetouan.

It is a far cry from the 1960s and 1970s when hippie travellers discovered a
small area of production, mostly for domestic use, of 5,000 hectares around
the Rif town of Ketama - now a stronghold of drug mafias.

Morocco is now the world's largest hashish exporter. It supplies 70% of
European hashish, according to the World Customs Organisation.

Of some 5 million inhabitants in the north, more than 200,000 farmers and
their families, at least a million people, are estimated to earn their
living from the cannabis crop.

There are police controls on all roads into the Rif, but local traffickers,
many with mule-trains, count distances in terms of the bribes they must pay
between one place to another.

Rif smallholders now get cash advances to buy seeds from local middlemen who
transform the mature cannabis plant into blocks of hashish. The peasants
earn 10 to 40 times less if they grow crops such as tomatoes or wheat.

Major traffickers in cities like Tangier or the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta
and Melilla send the blocks across the Mediterranean in speed boats or
hidden in shipping containers.

Locals boast of the quality of "Ketama Gold" but, Mr Moreno warned, smokers
in Europe actually inhale on something that is often cut by up to a third
with anything from powdered milk to goats' droppings.

Moroccan authorities say they share official EU worries about the expanding
drug fields. Two years ago the then head of the northern development
authority, Hissam Amrani, said he would eradicate the crop within seven
years.

Privately, however, officials say cannabis is a problem of Europe's own
making.

"It is big business and big money. It is a question of supply and demand.
And, anyway, how do you fight it, when you see so many European countries
legalising the drug?" asked one senior official in the capital, Rabat.

While his remark conflates decriminalisation with legalisation, it is a fact
that, having created a market by banning cannabis while also consuming it,
Europe would ruin the local economy if it then legalised the drug.

"That would be disaster for the north," admitted one EU official in Rabat
recently.

The EU estimates that, at ?2bn a year, hashish is unofficially both
Morocco's main foreign-currency source and a major contributor to its gross
domestic product.

EU attempts to convert farmers to avocados or grapes have proved
impractical. "These projects are there to please European public opinion,"
Mr Moreno said.

The best the EU, or Moroccan authorities, could hope to do was persuade
farmers to rotate their cannabis with other crops, to avoid ruining their
land with the fertilisers, he said.

News that locals cut their hashish with goat's dung may, however, do more
damage to the Rif's industry than the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent
on EU projects.

Mexico lost its position as a major producer after authorities sprayed
fields with chemicals. That led to a massive take-off in the number of
Americans who grew their own or farmed it as an illegal cash crop.

The US is now, as a result, said to be the world's biggest producer.

Home cultivation

With home cultivation also taking off in Britain (where domestic production
has now replaced Morocco as the largest source) and continental Europe, and
smokers increasingly turning to the marijuana leaf rather than the processed
and suspect hashish, Europeans may eventually leave the Rif farmers without
a market.

Perched under the spectacular twin peaks of the Jbel ech-Chaouen mountain,
Chaouen could live off its tourist charms, said Mr Moreno. But he feared the
rest of the Rif was so addicted to its drugs economy that it would turn to
another local plant.

"This is papaver somniferum and you can buy it in Chaouen's souk - though it
is only used for traditional medicines," he said, holding up a bag of
desiccated poppy heads. It is, however, also the raw material of heroin.

Pot facts

Cultivation 1956: 5,000 hectares 1994: 50,000 2000: 120,000 2003: 250,000

Hashish exports 3,000 tonnes/year

Hashish income ?2bn/year

People living off hashish crop 1m to 1.5m

UN estimate of marijuana users 140m, 2.5% of global population

Main producer United States

Main exporter Morocco

Americans who smoked marijuana,1997 19m

Regular US smokers, 1997 6.4m

UK market ?5bn

UK mark-up on Moroccan hashish 60% to 70%

UK consumption 800 tonnes/year

UK production 400 tonnes/year

Cannabis uses Stems: hemp rope, textiles. Seeds: oil in paint, varnishes.
Leaves/flowers: hashish THC drug


Pubdate: Tue, 27 May 2003
Source: Guardian, The (UK)
Copyright: 2003 Guardian Newspapers Limited
Contact: letters@guardian.co.uk
Website: http://www.guardian.co.uk/guardian/