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Drug Control Policy Fuels Social Unrest in Northern Morocco

By Khalid Tinasti

For the past three months, the Rif region in northern Morocco has been experiencing widespread protests and social unrest following the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a 31-year-old fish vendor who was crushed by the compactor of a garbage truck. Fikri was illegally selling swordfish, a species protected during the fall season, when police officers seized it and unlawfully threw it in the garbage truck without first providing official notification. In addition to opposing these questionable police procedures and their sometimes tragic consequences, the Rifans, supported by protesters in Rabat and Casablanca—Morocco’s capital and financial hub, respectively—have been marching against what is called in Maghreb Arabic the “hogra,” which translates as “disdain.”  

Hogra is commonly exercised by the Makhzen, the informal state system based on corruption and cronyism. In this system, the small financial and political elite disregards the dignity, human rights, and legal rights of the majority of citizens, and uses national security forces to maintain its privileges. The feeling of hogra among many Moroccans, is exacerbated in the Rif region due to historical, political, and economic factors, and further aggravated by the current drug policies both in legislation and in practice.

The Rifans, mostly Berbers, have historically opposed foreign authority by fighting French and Spanish colonization, proclaiming their own republic in the 1920s, and rebelling against the Moroccan authorities in the late 1950s and the 1980s. Each of these uprisings was ended by state-militarized responses. The uprisings in the Rif have resulted in a tenacious rejection of the region by Morocco’s former King Hassan II (1961-1999), who led the two violent military responses against the Rifans as crown prince in the 1950s and as king in the 1980s. There has been a significant lack of state investment in infrastructure in this remote mountainous region in response to its disobedience to the Rabat authorities, making it one of the least accessible and poorest regions in the country.

The lack of education, development, and infrastructure investment has forced the population to turn to illegal activities as their main source of income—primarily the smuggling of European goods from the Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla to the Moroccan market, as well as the illegal production and sale of cannabis and cannabis resin. Cannabis has been produced for centuries by the Ketama and Ghomara tribes in what is referred to as “historic cultivation areas” of the Rif, which span the 30 miles separating the villages of Bab Berred and Ketama.

According to U.N. data, Morocco is the largest cannabis producer in the world with an estimated 700 tons in 2013. The speedboats that smuggle cannabis to Europe through the Strait of Gibraltar bring back heroin unsold on the Spanish market, while traffickers who export cannabis to Algeria bring back amphetamines. These supply lines have facilitated a high concentration of various forms of drug use in the region.

This situation in which Rifans are left with few other economic options than to engage in illicit activities and risk criminal sanctions is aggravated by the harsh provisions of the Moroccan narcotics law. While drug use is punished with two months to one year in prison, the law allows for up to 30 years for drug trafficking offenses. The average sentence is around 10 to 15 years, even for minor, non-violent offences.

Cultivators are torn between coercion by the state due to constant risk of incarceration and the violence of organized criminals to whom they must deliver the cannabis plant or resin. The cultivators must take these risks to survive, since they make no more than $4 for a kilogram of cannabis leaves, which can retail for up to $10,000 in Western Europe. As a result of these prohibitive drug policies, thousands of Rifan youth have to live with criminal records for minor drug-related offenses and lack of professional alternatives, while cultivators are forced into hiding to avoid serving their sentences.

Morocco’s Agency for Promotion and Development of the North has tried to respond to the alarming situation in the Rif by introducing comprehensive development plans, but these plans ignore the deep and widespread impacts of criminalizing cannabis production and distribution, one of the main commercial activities of the region.

The introduction of alternative development for the Rif has focused on access to education and health services for the Rifans, accompanied by reforestation efforts. But one question remains unanswered: How can people who are criminalized, be it drug cultivators or users, reach out to state-sponsored services or trust the motives of the government?  

Solutions exist, however, and trust can be built. The first step is to decriminalize drug use and possession. There is a wealth of evidence for the societal benefits of decriminalization from the examples of countries such as Portugal or the Czech Republic. In Portugal, the decriminalization of drug use resulted in a 50 percent decrease in arrests and incarceration for drug offences, a fourfold decrease in opioid overdoses, and an 18 percent per capita decrease in social costs related to drugs.

The next step is to decriminalize the production of cannabis in the historic cultivation zone in order to allow the cultivators that depend economically and socially on this crop to operate their businesses without the threat of imprisonment.

In the longer term, the government must discuss the legal regulation of cannabis and reform the drug laws. The legal regulation of industrial hemp and medical use of cannabis has been put forward by the Rifan representatives of two established opposition political parties: the Istiqlal and the Modernity and Authenticity Party. The debate has not evolved since 2012, however, and the motives of these parties appear more political than social; the issue of cannabis policy reform is brought forward solely in local electoral campaigns.

Tempering social unrest in the Rif will not be successful unless drug laws are reviewed with the interests of the region fully taken into account. To tackle extreme poverty, build resilience and trust between the citizens and the state, improve health outcomes, and establish the rule of law while reducing corruption, violence, police abuse, and illicit trafficking, there is an urgent need to streamline drug policy within the government’s development policies.

Drug policy concerns need to be included in the existing development policies of the Rif, be they related to health, agriculture and reforestation, criminal justice reform, employment, social reintegration, or housing policies. This is an important step to halting social unrest in the Rif and to prove to Rifans that the Makhzen is being replaced with a state accountable to all of its citizens.

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Khalid Tinasti is the executive secretary of the Global Commission on Drug Policy in Geneva and honorary research associate at Swansea University.

[Photo courtesy of Chris Kinkel]

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