Not-So-Underground Economy

Jun 25, 2011 by        Blog, Morocco 2011

Each time a bee dies in my tea, Atef scoops it out with the back of a spoon.  Once he’s collected a handful of puckered insect corpses, he lays them out in the sun, sprinkles them with dirt, and blasts them with lungfuls of pot smoke.

“This will bring them back to life.  Keep drinking.”

Too exhausted to piece together an appropriately baffled response, I drink up and sit in silence, picking either tea stems or bug legs out of my teeth, reflecting on the fact that I’m not as fit as I’d like to think.  From Chefchaouen, where I’m staying, Atef’s village is a three hour hike up into the Rif mountains.  I’d told myself it would be a trifle, but now, slumped on an old mattress in his yard, I’m ready to pass out for the rest of the year.

Instead, I strike up a conversation about the view from the yard, which is exactly what I came here to talk about.  From its perch at the top of the Kalâa Valley, Atef’s hut looks out over miles and miles of marijuana fields.  Morocco is the world’s biggest exporter of cannabis, each year producing over 1,000 metric tonnes of hashish, or half the world’s annual consumption, at a value of over 4.5 billion Euros.  Kalâa, in the northern Rif, is the heart of Morocco’s pot farming region.  Curious about the local hash industry, I climbed up to the village to check out the plantations.

From talking to farmers like Atef and dealers in town, I’ve pieced together a rough idea of the workings of hash production in the Rif.  The crop is planted in March and harvested in August, by which time the plants can grow to be two meters tall.  Once the plants are cut, the farmers dry them and either sell them straight to middlemen or store them indoors and make hash as necessary to meet demand throughout the year.  The actual hash is made by sifting the cuttings through a fine mesh, heating the resulting resin, and packing it into bricks.  One full-grown plant yields about 600 grams of resin, and a single family farm can produce about a hundred kilograms in a year.  After the bricks are made, they’re either sold within Morocco or to traffickers who smuggle the hash into the EU, generally through Spain.  Small-time dealers and pot tourists also do their share of smuggling, sometimes swallowing up to a kilogram in small lumps wrapped tightly with cellophane, which they later pick out of their feces to smoke or sell at home.

Cannabis is illegal in Morocco, and possession is punishable with ten years’ imprisonment, but dealers and farmers operate more or less in the open.  It’s no wonder that police tend to turn a blind eye to the soft-drug trade, since marijuana farming provides the livelihoods of 760,000 Moroccan peasants and hash is unofficially the country’s most lucrative export.  The growers know that a crackdown would be a terrible financial decision for the government, so they’ve taken liberties: their “outlawed” crops are brazenly planted in plain view all over the hills of Chaouen Province, and while it’s rare to spot marijuana growing right by a main road, strong whiffs of the plants are common when driving on the region’s highways.

At Atef’s, I’m just taking in the scenery.  Setting aside consideration of the endless ethical quandaries of the international drug market, the view from here – acres on acres of farmland sloping off into the distance – is stunning.  There’s a lot of weed out there.  But Atef wants my attention.  He thrusts another dead bee in my face.

“It’s moving!  I told you!  It’s moving!”  He falls over laughing.

I stare at the bee.  It looks well expired to me, but Atef’s in another place.  His eyes are the color of bacon.  It’s anyone’s guess what he’s seeing.

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