Thanks to its large combined population and relative socioeconomic advantages, the European region is set to be the world’s most valuable cannabis market. Given that, it comes as no surprise that the rest of the world has ambitions to be its top supplier.
Being geographically adjacent, Africa, in particular, is literally positioned to capitalize on a relaxation of European cannabis laws. A Ugandan trading company recently announced that they are seeking to export medical cannabis to Europe after verification of meeting GAP and other standards, If successful, the joint venture between Industrial Hemp Uganda and Together Pharma of Israel could serve to drastically drive down the price of the emerging raw commodity.
However, one African nation, Morocco, is already the world’s largest – albeit illicit – supplier of cannabis to Europe. The BBC has calculated Morocco’s illegal exports to be worth approximately €8 billion ($8.84 billion USD).
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Morocco’s 2017 cannabis production supplied more than 36,000 tons, most of which was processed into cannabis resin (i.e., hash) sufficient to dwarf all other countries’ output. By comparison, the UNODC estimated that Mexico meanwhile produced a little more than 5,000 tons, or roughly 1/7 of Morocco’s supply.
“Resin potency [among imported Moroccan product] has shown a continuous increase since 2009,” noted the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in its European Drug Report 2019. “Drivers of this increasing average potency in resin likely include the introduction of high-potency plants and new production techniques in Morocco, and, to a lesser extent, the greater use within Europe of resin extraction techniques that provide higher potency products,” the EMCDDA elaborated, stressing that most of the hash found in Europe originates from Morocco.
Morocco’s vast production is reflected in the size of related cannabis seizures, characteristically measured by the ton. In one July 2019 haul, Moroccan police seized a record 27.3 tons. As noted in the U.N. International Narcotics Control Board’s 2018 annual report, some 400 tons of cannabis (both herb and hash) were seized in 2017, surpassing any amounts from other African nations and nearly matching all other resin seizures in the whole of Europe combined (or nearly 86% of the latter’s 466 tons).
In an illicit market, there are no quality assurances. In a report released the past spring, Spanish researchers tested 90 samples obtained in Madrid, finding that 88% of them were contaminated with harmful bacteria found in fecal matter.
In 1956, with the new independence of Morocco, King Mohammed V prohibited cannabis nationwide. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s the country became a popular destination for tourists seeking quality hashish, particularly in the Rif mountains. Though legalization had once been a taboo subject, there have been increasing calls for reform. Industry advocates have actively called for a policy of legislation and taxation to raise revenues through medical and adult-use programs while combating the illicit market.
There has likewise been a trend towards an increased cannabis-related investment in Africa. In legal markets such as Lesotho (a small landlocked nation in South Africa), interest has already been manifested through international investment from Supreme, Canopy Growth, and Halo Labs, for starters.
While cannabis remains illegal in Morocco, legitimate direct investment remains prohibited. However, Morocco is included in the European Union’s European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which aims to facilitate and increase economic integration between the EU and its neighbours. Should cannabis regulations change in Europe along the lines of what is being seen see in parts of the Americas, Morocco would be ideally positioned to reap a huge influx in investment toward the infrastructure necessary to serve its lucrative market. Such capital investment could help it move beyond cannabis resin, to the development of more refined and innovative delivery systems such as concentrates, edibles, and other cannabis-derived products.
Of course, should such happen, it could prove problematic for investors and operators who have invested heavily in European production facilities, particularly if the EU market were to get flooded with supply, and prices decline at a rapid pace.
As the EMCDDA pointed out in its 2018 drug report, “It is unclear what the implications for Europe will be if a large legal market for this drug develops in parts of the Americas, but an impact on patterns of supply or use in Europe cannot be ruled out.”