Morocco News

INTERVIEW-Morocco tells Europe: don't go soft on cannabis

* Cannabis revenues fell by two-thirds in 4 years

* Sharp falls in output, land under cannabis cultivation

* Police official says Europe must play its part too

RABAT, June 10 (Reuters) - Morocco has cut cannabis traffickers’ revenue to less than one-third of its 2005 level but its efforts could be undermined if Europe relaxes its policing of the drug, a senior Moroccan police official said.

Morocco, which the United Nations once classified as the world’s biggest cannabis exporter, mounted a crackdown on the illegal trade because it strained ties with the European Union, which consumes most of the cannabis that leaves Morocco.

“Our efforts against hashish trafficking activity have led to a reduction in the revenue of that illegal business to 4 billion euros ($4.8 billion) in 2009 from 13 billion euros in 2005,” Khalid Zerouali, the Interior Ministry’s official in charge of migration and border surveillance, said on Thursday.

In an interview with Reuters, Zerouali said that in 2003 134,000 hectares of land were used for growing cannabis and annual production of cannabis resin was about 3,000 tonnes.

In 2009, the cannabis growing area had shrunk to about 56,000 hectares and cannabis resin output had slumped to less than 500 tonnes, he said.

“This effort is made in complete transparency and cooperation with the United Nations as the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime shares with us the results of surveillance of our work made by satellites,” he said.

The Moroccan government believes the illicit cannabis trade is hampering development of its northern regions, where the drug is grown. It also suspects that cash from hashish sales is used to help fund the activities of militant Islamists.

Some EU countries have made moves to re-classify cannabis as a less harmful drug and reduce the penalties for possessing or selling it. Zerouali warned them against going down that path.

“Morocco is accomplishing its mission. It cut cannabis production and it will continue to do that. But everybody has to play their role. There are no soft drugs and hard drugs.”

“Europe is where almost all the cannabis resin is consumed. We cannot continue there with the logic of decriminalising this so-called soft drug. A drug is a drug,” he said.

The EU granted Morocco “advanced status” in 2008, giving it better trade terms and increased development aid, in recognition of its success in stemming the cannabis trade, as well as its progress in reducing illegal migration to Europe.

Morocco’s strategy for tackling the cannabis problem focuses on cracking down on traffickers while at the same time providing subsidies to farmers to encourage them to switch to legal crops like fruit, olives, and medicinal herbs. (Editing by Tim Pearce)