Afghanistan Surpasses Morocco as World’s Biggest Cannabis Grower
By Tom Pfeiffer
RABAT, March 27 (Reuters) – Morocco appears to be losing its position as the world’s top cannabis grower to Afghanistan after a drive to eradicate the crop in the African country’s impoverished north, the head of the U.N. anti-drugs agency said.
Morocco’s multi-billion dollar cannabis harvest almost halved from 2003 to 2006 after officials ordered the destruction of crops, farmers were encouraged to seek other sources of income and drought depleted yields.
Some 70,000 hectares of the dark green, fern-like plant were grown in Morocco in 2006, said Antonia Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"I think we are around 60,000 hectares at the moment, although the survey is still ongoing," he told Reuters by telephone.
In lawless Afghanistan, however, the opposite is happening.
"What we’ve seen for sure is a gigantic increase in cultivation of cannabis in Afghanistan," said Costa. "It may very well have overtaken Morocco."
A scientific study of drug cultivation in Afghanistan last year showed a cannabis crop of about 70,000 hectares, he said.
Cannabis cultivation also seemed to be on the rise in the Middle East in Sinai, eastern Lebanon and even parts of Iraq, he said.
Rabat was accused for years of failing to develop Morocco’s rugged and isolated Rif mountains where families grow cannabis to stave off grinding poverty.
To draw investment and help lift the region out of poverty, it opened the kingdom’s largest container terminal near Tangier last year and is setting up a chain of free trade zones nearby.
Four years ago Morocco’s hashish trade netted an estimated $12 billion for dealers and for drug barons who benefited from the complicity of local officials.
Around a quarter of that sum filtered back into the Moroccan economy.
Spurred on by suspicions that sales from hashish helped pay for terrorist activities, Moroccan authorities have tightened drug controls at ports and installed scanners able to detect cannabis within large trucks and containers.
While Morocco remains the world’s biggest exporter of processed cannabis, a record 35 tonnes of hashish were seized in Tangier port last year, up 25 percent from 2006.
Costa said that had prompted a shift in tactics by trafficking networks.
"We now see more cannabis being shifted east across north Africa and reaching the shores of Europe in Italy and Greece," he said. "There are reports that some of the money is funding terrorist cells, including groups in Algeria."
Cannabis is the most widely consumed illicit drug globally. Cannabis herb production slipped 6 percent to 42,000 tonnes in 2005, according to U.N. estimates.