“Err…those aren’t the normal cookies,” mentioned a friend. I immediately stopped stuffing my face. He was right. These weren’t the usual buttery baked treat grannies made in the marketplace.
“There may be a little…erm, hashish in the cookies,” my caftan clad comrade whispered.
Someone else muttered something in Arabic.
“Oh…ok, there may be lots…of hashish, in the cookies.”
I tried to count how many I’d eaten. I was in the middle of the Chefchaouen medina – the old quarter of the city – perched optimistically on a steep Riffan slope. From the roof, the whole blue and white town looked like it could start sliding down the mountain side at any moment. Figures in hooded djellabas wound their way through the wonky street maze, entering cubbyholes jutting out of the woodwork in the strangest places. In the dying afternoon light, the place took on an otherworldly feel…though that could have had something to do with the cookies.
Morocco is the world’s largest consumer of hash per capita. Despite over two decades of government crackdowns, the small North African kingdom also remains one of the world’s largest producers of cannabis, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Nowhere is this more evident than the small mountain town of Chefchaouen, capital of the province of the same name.
Although the US State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (BINLEA) has recognised that al-Hoceima Province has overtaken Chefchaouen as Morocco’s largest cannabis growing region, the latter retains a legendary reputation as a serious hash haven.
Tourists descend on this otherwise quiet hamlet during the summer, but all year round a trickle of steadfast hippies brave overnight bus trips out to this whitewashed town, cradled between two mountains. It isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a town with such a prominent role in the global narcotics trade.
Chefchaouen barely even feels like a town. The pretty, compact medina is mostly filled with art shops, bakeries and cafes. Outside the walls is a gushing waterfall where women come to do their washing. Overlooking the whole town is a Spanish built mosque, which strangely looks more like a chapel. In every direction, there is nothing but mountains and green, green crops.
Beyond this idyllic country town, however, the Moroccan government is waging an endless war against cannabis growers.
Kenza Afsahi, a researcher from the University of Montreal’s International Centre of Criminology, says that since the 1980’s, “cannabis (cultivation) has improved the lives of rural farmers” in Morocco’s northern mountains, the Rif. Cannabis makes land unsuitable for most other crops, and is a source of employment for Morocco’s immense population of landless labourers. In ‘Cannabis Cultivation Practices in the Moroccan Rif’, Afsahi argued much of the region’s economic development can be attributed to the narcotic.
However, in 2009 alone, BINLEA reported Moroccan authorities had destroyed 8,338 hectares of cannabis in the northern provinces. Airborne chemical defoliants, mechanical and manual crop removal, and controlled fires have devastated the mostly poor, small land holders.
Despite the heavy eradication campaigns of the last decade, most cannabis growers seem fairly open about their illegal trade to travellers.
I met plenty of backpackers who toured cannabis farms, and was invited to learn about traditional Riffan hash processing techniques. Free samples were included, though photography was obviously not permitted.
Although the surrounding countryside is undergoing dramatic upheavals, the town of Chefchouen remains one of the most relaxed hamlets in Morocco. Sipping tea in street side cafes is an easy way to strike up conversation with locals, some of who seem permanently baked. Things get complicated if you have snacks, though. I tried walking through the medina one morning with a tube of pringles, only to have random passers-by pretty much consume the lot. It was like everyone had the mad munchies by mid-morning, but admittedly, so did I.