A bowl containing beaten kif
Until the Spanish occupation of northern Morocco in the 1920s, Chefchaouen was basically a closed city. In fact, when troops first arrived they found Jews in the area speaking a medieval form of Castilian Spanish that hadn't been heard on the Iberian peninsula for around 400 years, and a population that was more opposed to Christianity than reddit's entire swamp of militant keyboard atheists.
But thanks to the Spanish valiantly wiping out decades of cultural heritage, the city has now opened up to become a popular tourist spot. Backpackers flock in from around the world to take selfies next to its beautiful blue-washed architecture, eat its famous regional goat cheese and, more than anything else, take advantage of the thriving local hash industry.
Morocco is said to produce nearly half of the world's hashish, and it's estimated that around 800,000 Moroccans work in the industry – mostly in the Rif, the mountainous region of northern Morocco where Chefchaouen is located. The debate about decriminalising that industry has been bubbling away in parliament for a while, with a member of the opposition saying in August that his party hopes to legalise cannabis production within the next three years.
Its illegal status is no small problem in a region where so many people depend on it for their primary source of income. Quoted in the Independent, a spokesman for Morocco's Istiqlal Party said, "There are villages in the Rif where men are nowhere to be found because they are either in jail or wanted by the police." The same argument currently sweeping through the US and UK is being made in Morocco by pro-legalisation campaigners: that taxing production could save the country's economy from its current deficit, save money on policing and basically make everything easier for everyone involved.
With this in mind, I decided to visit Chefchaouen for myself to exist exclusively on goat's cheese for a weekend, escape the bars of Rabat and their insistence on playing Khaled every five minutes, and find the world's best hash in its birthplace.
Weed we bought almost instantly and very easily when we arrived
Turns out that last one isn't too difficult. If you smoke weed and you can't score in Chefchaouen, then you're probably smoking far too much weed. Rifi Berbers – a Berber ethnic group who inhabit the Rif – accost you, smiling, at almost any time of day, offering you a bunch of stuff you might want: "Hash? Kif? Girls? Opium?" etc, etc. They will not take your first, second or third "no" as any kind of legitimate answer.
I brought two friends along with me, one of whom was a Chefchaouen veteran. When we arrived, he called a friend he'd made on a previous trip and set up a tour around a hash farm for the next day. With everything in place, we headed to the hostel – Hotel Souika – which was full of all the cliches you'd expect in a utopia for hash smokers.
There were male backpackers wearing beards, female backpackers wearing beads and the standard-issue stoner pilgrims wearing Berber fleeces waffling away about drugs, while on drugs, to anyone else who looked like they might be on drugs and was unfortunate enough to be within earshot. More unorthodox were the cooing Spanish and Japanese couple who started and ended every day with a huge joint and spent about half an hour each evening brushing their teeth in absolute darkness on the balcony.
Our first full day in Chefchaouen started as badly as any day in Chefchaouen can. Our guide picked us up at the hotel and we walked about a hundred metres, with him telling us how he was going to show us rooms packed with weed, before a man grabbed him by the shoulder and led him away. I turned around and caught my friend's eye. "Start walking," he said, "he's getting arrested." I heard handcuffs clink behind me and started ambling forward, trying, very badly, to look as if I had nothing to do with him. I felt bad, yes, but I really wasn't prepared to be thrown in a cell for the day for the crime of walking down a road next to a man I'd just met.
Back at the hostel, the receptionist told us that wouldn't have been an issue. "It was the tourism police, and he isn't a registered tour guide," she told us. "They arrest him every day – it's no problem for you. They will question him and he will say, 'I don't have a job. Do you want me to steal?'"
Our perma-arrested guide isn't alone in his jobless plight. Morocco's unemployment rate is around 9 percent, but rises to 30 percent for those under the age of 34. That number wouldn't be nearly as high if the now clandestine hash trade was legalised, forcing farmers to keep records of the estimated 800,000 industry employees and potentially creating more jobs as the market grows.
The view of Chefchaouen from the Spanish mosque in the hills
After the hostel's receptionist explained the fate of our first tour guide, another man approached us, told us he'd seen what had happened and offered to show us around instead. We followed him through the mountains for a good 40 minutes, taking a break at a Spanish mosque and admiring the pastel, blue-washed city below us.
Eventually, we reached a farmhouse at the top of a small hamlet in the hills. We were led to a courtyard and given chairs to sit on while chickens pecked around our feet, making noises that didn't sound like they should be coming from chickens. "They eat the marijuana seeds," our guide told us. "They go crazy."
Kif being beaten into hash
One of the workers brought a large bag of kif – which is the THC crystals once they've been separated from the marijuana buds – into the courtyard, which had apparently been harvested the month before. A bowl was covered with tights, the kif was placed on top of that, covered with another fabric then beaten so a fine powder was left in the bowl. The powder was collected in a little baggie, scrunched together and rubbed against a trouser leg; then the hash was ready. The farmer told us it takes him around 25 minutes to get through a kilo of kif, from which he can make around 10 grams of hash.
We were told that what we'd seen being made would be in the European market next year, but I was also told by other Moroccans that Chefchaouen's hash is mainly consumed by the domestic market.
The hash we made at the farmhouse
The farm we visited was a family-run business; as we were making the hash a little girl ran around among the chickens, smiling and laughing. It was kind of a weird sight, but testament to the fact that the farm has been owned and operated by the family living there for over 40 years. Chefchaouen's economy revolves around tourism and hash, and a good deal of the tourism is either because of the hash or – among the older tourists I met, at least – because the city has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The legalisation and legitimisation of a workforce as large as the hash industry's could not only help Morocco's national and local economies, but could help to better integrate the Rif region, known for its Berber tribalism and antagonism towards the central Moroccan government.
It's an industry that already employs close to a million people, has reportedly been in operation in Morocco since the 15th century and one that members of the police force have been accused of being a part of in the past. Everything points to decriminalisation making sense, but there are clearly still obstacles to overcome.
Cannabis legalisation in Morocco would be a first for any Arab country. The main question is whether a conservative society – though comparably tolerant, for the region – would tolerate full legalisation, and then how the European Union would react, considering Morocco has already been flooding the continent with shipping freights packed with hash for the past half a century.
International pressures considered, it seems unlikely for now – but the potential benefits for Morocco itself are plain to see.
Follow James on Twitter: @duckytennent
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