Moroccan hashish journey
Morocco somewhat resembles Mecca, with street signs encoded with ancient symbols and mosques on every corner, with the muezzin singing prayers five times a day from those mosques.
The prayer songs echo in your head like hallucinatory scenes from the classic William Burroughs novel (later made into a fantastic movie) Naked Lunch, which was written while Burroughs was in Tangiers in a weeks-long trance induced by eating Moroccan hashish.
Morocco is a marijuana Mecca because the North African country is the world's most consistent producer and exporter of cannabis resin, otherwise known as hashish.
Nobody knows for sure how much marijuana is grown in Morocco, how much land is devoted to cannabis cultivation, or how much Maroc hashish is exported each year, but estimates from the European Union, the United Nations and the CIA claim the country produces at least 30,000 pounds of hashish annually.
Satellite photos and other data acquired in the last decade indicate that approximately 220,000 Moroccan acres are under cultivation during the pot-growing season that generally lasts from March to early September. The scope of Morocco's cultivation can be seen in photos of huge clouds of male cannabis pollen that shroud Northern Africa and Southern Europe when the country's pot plants are in full bloom.
Almost all this acreage can be found in the rugged and remote Rif Mountains located in the country's northeast quadrant.
The Rif is a spectacular geologic feature, stripped bare of its natural vegetation by centuries of overpopulation and irrational land use practices, so that the raw undulations of stone, peaks, valleys and cliffs are seen with stark clarity.
The Rif is Africa's Jamaica ? its fierce, resourceful, independent residents live for the most part in splendid isolation managing terraced farms, scant water supplies, and ganja fields. The area's residents are called "Riffies," and they have their own form of superb indigenous music, known as "Rif rock," that serves as Morocco's equivalent of reggae.
Riffies are literally a breed apart. Their culture is tribal, based on the tradition of Berber warriors who have fought kings and drug warriors, forcing invaders down the mountains toward the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea which border the country.
The Rif has its own music, languages, and customs. Outsiders are not necessary or welcome. Riffies grow, process and transfer cannabis products to other Moroccans and to Europeans, who are largely responsible for getting Maroc resins across the water to Europe.
Ever since I became a marijuana journalist I wanted to emulate the heroic exploits of those who went before me to Morocco. I wanted to follow in their reckless footsteps while avoiding the harrowing experiences most of them reported ? experiences that included being chased down the mountains on narrow, cliff-edged, winding roads, at speeds of 100 miles per hour, by wacked-out guys in battered Mercedes waving kilos of hash at the terrified, fleeing outsiders.
So it was a bitter twist of fateful irony that Allah designated 2002 to be my year to first visit Morocco. With the world on the brink of war that pits patriarchal monotheistic religious cultures against each other, and with George W Bush making America look like a Blade Runner version of the Roman Empire, I wondered if it was smart for a short-haired, blonde American guy with a bunch of cameras and a tape recorder to go on a fact-finding mission in one of the Arab world's most secretive marijuana cultivation strongholds.
When a European marijuana businessman promised me photographic and journalistic access to "warehouses full of hashish and fields of marijuana as far as the eye can see," I carefully weighed the opportunity to bring you the inside story from Morocco versus the possibility I would be jailed, injured or killed during the trip.
From Allah to al Hoceima
My consternation about going to Morocco caused me to literally wait to the last minute before deciding to drive all night to my departure airport. I made it there with only minutes to spare and boarded a Royal Air Maroc plane.
I was the only "white person" on the plane, and it made me realize, as I looked around at faces that resembled people being demonized as terrorists by corporate media and government back home, that I was now a minority in a different culture. I was at their mercy; if they really desired to harm an American, I realized, they could do it easily.
Thank Allah my fears were unjustified; we landed at a remote, little-used airport in Northern Morocco after a flight that was notable only for the shy, friendly smiles and inquiring glances of my fellow passengers.
The airport was guarded by security forces. Unlike the US, Morocco does not pretend to be a democracy. It is a kingdom, ruled by King Mohammed VI, the latest in a long line of Muslim royalty and rulers who ultimately trace their reign back to 681 AD, when the Arab conquest of Morocco began and when the Islamic religion was first forced on Morocco.
Alarmed as I am by the growing US police state, I found Morocco's anti-democratic military-civilian law enforcement regime as oppressive as the one in my own country. Soldiers guarded the airplane, watched me with unconcealed suspicion, and pointed their guns at me when I asked if I could take a picture of the airplane.
My European contact and his Moroccan guide arrived. We piled into an oversized sport utility vehicle and left the airport, soon to be repeatedly stopped and then waved on by several sets of soldiers and police officers whose habit it is to stand in the middle of the road and randomly stop vehicles and pedestrians.
"They might want a bribe, or they might want to take your cameras or question you," said the driver, who seemed to aggressively aim our vehicle at the soldiers and police rather than try to go around them. "It makes us very necessary to be careful, especially with American journalist in the car."
Before I committed to the journey, my host had promised a super-stony time in Northern Africa. But after I arrived, he was initially unable to find quality hashish in the lowlands near the coast, where we languished while waiting for the "right time to go up the Rif."
To procure hashish, we stopped at roadside cafes and restaurants where men gathered at tables sipping the delicious, ever-present mint tea while smoking cannabis resins mixed with homegrown tobacco. A few men spoke English; they told me cannabis and homegrown tobacco were illegal, but that penalties for illegal tobacco were far worse than penalties for marijuana!
Our guide went into the bowels of cannabis caf?s while my European companion and I stood quietly in the background. The local currency is called the "dirham," and it is illegal to carry dirhams into or out of Morocco. In fact, people who purchase dirhams with foreign currency must register the transaction with the government. For about $40 US worth of dirhams, we purchased several lumps of gold-colored hashish that were each about the size of golf balls. The hash looked beautiful but had no odor, and its texture was dissimilar to Maroc hash I've photographed frequently in Holland.
My companions sat down, ordered mint tea, and quickly began to roll sloppy tobacco cigarettes into which they crumbled morsels of hash.
I'm allergic to tobacco and cancer, but needed to smoke some hashish because the airplane flight and unfamiliar surroundings had me feeling queasy.
I took a deep puff off the hash-tobacco cigarette and immediately felt tobacco effects, which made me dizzy and nauseous. I did not feel high at all.
My companions gave me a ten-gram lump of hashish but could not find a pipe for me to smoke it in. For the next three pipeless days, I watched them smoke hash mixed with tobacco, while I looked at my lump of hash in despair. They amused themselves by driving the narrow streets of the area's largest city, Al Hoceima, leering at exotic, demure young girls while telling me, "Moroccan women are kept behind the walls and only let out for two hours per day."
Indeed, wherever we went into Al Hoceima, to the portside restaurant where we ate delicious freshly-caught fish that we bought from the boat and then had custom-cooked inside, to the casual balcony caf? overlooking town where a cliff-top mosque gilded the Mediterranean below, I noticed women were virtually absent from public life. The absence of women was as strange to me as the Arabic lettering on street signs.
When we went to a fancy restaurant-bar in one of the region's only decent hotels, the only women present were three teenaged girls, dressed like Westerners instead of in traditional garb, who seemed intent on making instant connection with a foreigner for the purpose of "getting married and getting out of Morocco."
Indeed, one beautiful, dark-haired lass named Faruda offered herself explicitly to a wealthy European hash trader while a Moroccan interpreter deliberately mis-translated what she was saying, called her a whore, and made light of her desperation.
I watched as the girl followed the man outside, having been led to believe he was going to take her to "marry" her and bring her to Europe.
Instead, he disdainfully dismissed her with a cruel wave of the hand.
Visibly stung and humiliated, and with tears in her eyes, she looked to me for assistance, then put her hands to her heart and ran away.
According to my companions, she would be locked "behind the walls" until the next evening, when she would again escape for two hours to try to snare a foreign prince who would bear her to freedom.
Don't hit the cop
After several days of swimming in the Mediterranean, interviewing hashish smugglers and trying unsuccessfully to find a pipe, the European told me to pack my cameras for our trek into the forbidden mountain region near Ketama, a seedy city notorious as the capital of the Moroccan hash trade.
That afternoon, as a cold wind swept in from the hinterlands and people trudged along darkened lanes toward mute hovels carved into foreboding terrain that included open sewage pipes and terraced olive gardens, the Moroccan guide piloted our vehicle toward the mountains 90 miles away.
In my pocket was the plastic-wrapped chunk of hashish, unsmoked, hardened, that I so longed to smoke. The Moroccan guide promised I would soon be able to procure a hash pipe at a caf? in the Rif foothills.
I noticed our driver was speeding 70 miles per hour through a small village. Suddenly we saw in the middle of the road ahead of us a policeman wearing a reflective vest, waving a flashlight, signaling us to stop.
"Shit, we can't stop, we've got hashish, American, and alcohol," the driver said as he gunned the engine.
The policeman's face registered surprise, then anger as he sprawled backwards just in time to avoid being flattened.
Our driver laughed maniacally as we zoomed away from the inert figure, and soon we were engulfed in the inky night. My companions viewed it as a humorous incident to be remembered for laughs, until the driver began panicking when he saw rapidly-approaching headlights overtaking us.
"It's the police!" he shouted, pushing his foot down on the accelerator. "Give me passports. Hide booze. Throw hashish out the window."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing ? I was expected to get rid of my precious hash, only minutes before I was supposed to finally be smoking it? I toyed with the idea of hanging onto the golden lump, but he kept yelling at me "Throw, throw!" so I tossed it out the window just as an old Mercedes coupe passed us.
"Don't worry, my American friend," the driver said, seeing my dejected face in the rearview mirror, "You smoke all you want soon enough."
Kif in the Rif
We stopped at a tiny caf? perched on barren shelfland from which I could see no lights, no settlements, no roads ? only the white-capped, moonlit Mediterranean waves far in the distance.
The caf? was managed by a stout, amiable Moroccan named Ahmed, whose customers were a dozen young men from the local village gathered around a tiny television intently watching a soccer game.
Ahmed and most of his customers had their own "sebsi" pipes that they used to smoke "kif." Sebsis are long-stemmed pipes, fragile and often made from the hollowed stalk of a marijuana plant, with a tiny bowl on the end. The bowl is big enough to hold an amount of cannabis slightly larger than the size of a pea.
These pipes are vital implements for smoking kif, which is a traditional concoction made for centuries in Morocco that consists of indigenous tobacco and finely-chopped marijuana.
Before my Moroccan visit, the "kif" I had smoked was resin glands and plant debris, freshly detached from whole marijuana. That kif was usually green, moist, harsh, and powerful.
The kif carried by the caf? men in little pouches initially looked like kif I was used to, but close examination with my macro lens revealed the tiny particles that looked like resin glands to the unaided eye were not resin glands at all: they were tiny granules of plant material, sand, and other debris.
When I questioned the men about their kif, they produced a shiny, sharp, short silver knife. I thought perhaps I had offended them and would be meeting Allah sooner than I had wished, but they also brought out a cutting board, dried marijuana leaves, pollen-covered male flowers and seeded female flowers.
While we drank cup after cup of mint tea and stars wheeled above us in the velvety North African sky, Ahmed removed as many seeds and stems as he could, placed the remaining plant material on the board, and began methodically chopping, grinding, sifting, cutting, re-cutting, and cleaning the material.
It took him 35 minutes to transform an ounce of raw cannabis into a pile of granular fragments. The procedure was practical, but it was also a ritual show.
While Ahmed chopped, his young male customers asked me many questions about America. Most of their questions and comments centered on American imperialism. Why does Bush always side with Israel to make war on Arabs? Why does USA try to tell the whole world what to do? Does Moroccan hashish make it to America?
I explained what was good about the USA while reassuring them that I opposed Bush and risked my life writing articles that exposed his agendas and drug war corruption. The men were surprised to meet an American who did not believe his country was "the greatest in the world," and they warmed up to me, offering their sebsis so theirs would be the first pipe I smoked out of.
I told Ahmed I wanted no tobacco, so he pushed a small pile of unadulterated kif towards me while a young man demonstrated the prescribed method for loading the sebsi. It involved flicking small amounts of powder into the bowl with a forefinger and thumb in a manner that somewhat resembled the use of chopsticks, packing the kif tight into the bowl, lighting, inhaling once and again, and then turning the pipe and yourself sideways so that a quick, sharp exhalation propels the small burnt coal out of the pipe.
Now sebsi-trained, I was ready to inhale my first pure Moroccan cannabis product in Morocco. The match flared and I drew in sweet, thick smoke that tasted spicy. I inhaled and expelled five bowlfuls while the men looked on, clapping their hands and smiling.
Within a minute, I felt uncomfortable artifacts similar to what you feel after you've just ingested magic mushrooms. I was dizzy and disoriented, suddenly fatigued and nauseous. I put on a happy face and pretended to be enjoying the "high," but my mind was working overtime, trying to analyze the unpleasant, unwelcome effects.
Somebody put a bag of unpressed resin powder on the table and encouraged us to smoke it.
In Morocco, resin powder is produced using methods historians say have only been used in the country since the early 1960's. Before these methods were introduced, allegedly by Europeans and North Americans, Moroccans did not process cannabis into powder and hashish ? they only smoked it as kif.
Morocco's modern hashmaking methodology involves placing marijuana plants on top of sieves, pieces of cloth, or other materials that have very small pore sizes, covering the cannabis with heavy plastic, and then shaking or pounding the cannabis so that resin glands fall through the pores.
Sometimes, cannabis is placed inside a bag made of mesh fabric such as nylon. The bag is placed inside a bucket and the top of the bucket is sealed with plastic and then laid on its side. The bucket is hit with a rubber mallet or piece of wood for a few minutes so that only the heaviest resin glands detach and fall through the mesh.
The bucket, opened and emptied of the mesh bag containing cannabis, is coated with a fine dust that is mostly mature cannabis glands and a small amount of soil dust. This type of first-run, carefully-made resin powder, when derived from fully mature plants that possess superior genetics, is pressed into top-ranked, pale gold-colored traditional hashish that is often called "double zero," "primero," or "supreme."
Most Moroccan cannabis plants have a low percentage of resin glands. My advisors told me it took an average of 290 pounds of raw cannabis to make one pound of resin powder. The powder is processed into hashish that sells for less than one dollar per gram in the Rif; in Holland, the best Moroccan hash sells for about $15 per gram, and usually contains between 40-55% cannabinoids. It is nowhere near as strong or as pure as new-method products such as bubblehash.
When processors want more profits, they beat the cannabis harder and use larger pore sizes, so crushed leaves and other plant material fall through and add to extract volume. This product is inferior to double zero, is darker in color, and is often sold in Dutch coffeeshops as "Honey Maroc," or "Golden Maroc."
Some hashish manufacturers literally beat the crap out of their plants so that mounds of pulverized material can be gathered. Such manufacturers often use plants harvested too early, which means the plants have a low mature resin gland percentage. Prematurely harvested plants have not had time to produce a full range of complex cannabinoids.
Material gathered from young or low-grade plants is often used as a dilutant to blend with higher-grade powders. Sometimes, inferior powders are mixed with henna, herbs, oils, turpentine, and other materials. In England, low-quality adulterated Moroccan and Indian hash powder is sold in toxic hardened bricks called "soapbar."
But I wasn't in England, I was in Northern Africa, so I took the bag of powder off the table, opened it, and smelled it. The best traditional hashish from Morocco, Lebanon, Afghanistan and India smells spicy or piney. The powder in my hands had little smell, and I was suspicious of its quality. Nevertheless, I was highly motivated to get high, mainly because I wanted to mask the sick feeling my first puffs of kif had produced. I smoked several bowls of pure powder. The effects came on slowly over a period of thirty minutes.
The high was dreamy and detached, like that of opium or a sedative-hypnotic prescription drug, combined with a mildly hallucinogenic overlay.
I tried to assay the high as I was drawn in by the caf?'s sound system, which was playing Rif music that featured atonal chord patterns and complex rhythmic structures never heard in western music, and otherworldly singing.
The men around me now seemed like long-lost friends. They kept loading their sebsis, smoking, laughing and drinking mint tea.
Later, I wandered away from the tiny oasis of light and sound until it was merely a bright spot on the horizon. In the vast desert I laid down on my back to watch the shooting stars. Silence and solitude reigned. I was alone and stoned in the middle of nowhere in Africa.
Kings and cannabis
Daybreak arrived early and my hosts procured two venerable Mercedes for the trip toward Ketama. We were leaving the SUV behind: it would attract too much attention, the kind of attention that resulted in being chased, robbed, or disappeared.
The Rif was especially paranoid these days, Ahmed explained, because of George W Bush, and because the Moroccan government had assured United Nations drug warriors in 2001 that the country would eliminate all internal hashish production by 2008.
Ahmed said his government had often tried to stop the cannabis trade. King Mohammed V, who reigned from 1927 until 1961, sent anti-cannabis military forces into the Rif during the late 1950's. His son, King Hassan II, tried to destroy a large portion of the region's "kif crop" during the early 1960's.
"Hassan was a very dangerous king," explained Ahmed. "He was a big friend of the USA; the USA put its army and spies here. He saw Morocco as his company, with us as his employees. In the 1980's, when the Riffies got too strong, he sent in helicopters to shoot them and take others to prison. He hit almost all the major hashish people at the same time. Ever since, the royal policy is, ?Don't hurt the Riffies too much or they will hurt you, but don't let them get too wealthy and powerful, because they will take over the country.' His son, Mohammed VI, is rumored to be a kif smoker and he has mostly left us alone. Lucky for him that he has."
The Riffies, strengthened by their Berber roots, are fierce freedom fighters who have brutally punished the Moroccan military for its incursions, and Morocco's kings have allegedly issued royal edicts granting Rif families the right to grow cannabis forever, as long as the crop is used only for production of domestic kif.
Every few years, the government makes half-hearted attempts to mess with the Rif, but these efforts only result in cultivators moving their fields up and down the Rif and to the Atlas Mountains south of the Rif, in a game of cat and mouse that government forces never win.
Marijuana cultivation is tolerated because many areas of the Rif are unable to support other industries that would generate the $3 billion per year in foreign exchange and 25,000 jobs that the Rif's cannabis industry creates.
"Kif is the only plant that can grow here," said one of our bodyguards, pointing to the thin, dry soil. "If it wasn't for kif, many families would starve."
Indeed, hashish production is one of Morocco's most successful industries. It is usually ranked above orange groves, date palms, tourism, fisheries, and phosphate mining as one of few capitalist success stories in what is otherwise an impoverished Third World country.
As our two car caravan navigated the road toward Ketama, I was entranced by the colorful landscape, unpopulated open spaces, and vaulting mountains. When we were several thousand feet above sea level, my hosts pointed to vast areas of light-brown dirt with small reedy stalks protruding from them. It was a warm September day that would be perfect for ripening cannabis in Northern California and other outdoor marijuana cultivation locales, but Morocco's harvest had already been taken in.
"In July, this was all a green carpet from valley to mountaintop," one man said as we stood on the side of the road looking at the empty fields. "The kif plants are a jewel for the eye."
I did not see many of those jewels during my visit - the Moroccan growing season had ended. The mostly-Indica varieties grown in Morocco are planted in early March and April, when run-off from mountain snow and lingering precipitation make it possible for seeds to sprout and have enough moisture to get at least two to six feet high before the blistering hot dry days of summer arrive in June and July.
As we climbed higher in the Rif and stopped at various locations to examine cannabis farming operations, it became obvious that Moroccan agricultural and hashish processing methods have
not kept pace with advances in the cannabis industry.
Farmers told me they use chemical fertilizers because they could not easily find manures and other natural fertilizers to augment the soil, which was especially lacking in phosphorus and nitrogen.
Irrigation systems are rare, which means plants start withering when the rains stop in mid-summer, and must be harvested whether they possess mature resin glands or not. Immature plants are cut down and stored in the sun or indoors in high temperatures; sunlight and heat break down cannabinoids into inferior, degraded products that produce sedative effects rather than a euphoric "up" high.
Most Moroccan growers have no idea what genetics they plant year after year, nor do they attempt to import seeds from elsewhere that might be better suited for their climate. They're unfamiliar with separating male and female plants to produce sinsemilla. Their processing methods introduce cannabinoid degradation, dust, dirt, and hair into the end product.
Further, they were uninterested in new techniques that would improve the quality, quantity, potency, profitability or longevity of their cannabis products.
"We don't need to try new things," one farmer told me. "There are already many tons surplus of hashish and powder stored in Morocco and across the water. We don't mind to grow plants that are not covered with the drug; there is already too much hashish. If we grow bigger and better, we overproduce, and the price comes down because of oversupply."
We stopped to admire a handsome mosque clinging to a hillside in dwindling twilight. My host got a cell phone call telling him military squads were patrolling the roads in and around Ketama. A mule caravan carrying 100 kilos had been intercepted; two smuggling yachts were being towed to port at Al Hoceima.
We detoured away from Ketama onto a dirt track that snaked its way into the heart of the mountains. We passed gold-colored huts that contained bushels of hashish powder and brittle-dry plants, and finally parked in the courtyard of a stately mansion surrounded by outbuildings on a steep hillside.
The estate manager greeted us and bid us enter into a building equipped with fancy sleeping benches, and tables laden with local fruits and freshly-baked bread. While we rested, smoked and ate, the driver told me we were to wait overnight for a "godfather or warlord" who would arrive tomorrow with 200 kilos of hashish. If we were judged worthy, we might be allowed to see, sample, and photograph the hashish.
I wandered away from the building and examined the landscape and cultural environment. I heard women's voices from behind the mansion walls, but in two days there I never saw a woman. The hillsides were terraced with olive trees, vegetables and primitive gravity-driven drip irrigation systems. Thousands of cannabis stalks bristled from the ground as far as my eyes could see. At the bottom of the hill in a small valley meadow, wild cannabis grew with mint in the autumn sun, as dozens of bright-eyed, healthy, giggling children swarmed to surround me.
Back at the estate, somebody had brought out a sack of dried cannabis, a few bags of resin powder, and some kif, hash slates and balls. I avoided the kif and the golden powder, and smoked a piece of "chocolate" hash. Its surface lit up with tiny sparkles when I put flame to it; the sparkles result from quick ignition of volatile impurities in the hashish.
I slept outside on bare rock, watching the moon rise and set in a brocade of meteors, caressed by the whispering wind.
After we'd enjoyed a hearty breakfast of bread, fruit, strong coffee and mint tea, the godfather arrived in his new Mercedes and delivered the sad news that police activities prevented him from bringing the kilos to us.
"If you pay $1000 US, we hire bodyguards and a car, and you can try to visit very full warehouses in Ketama where is more hashish than all of Holland," he said, but he could not guarantee my safety. "Even with bodyguards and more bribes I do not recommend it," he warned me. "You must dye your hair and not speak American; maybe then you are safe."
I considered my personal safety, my loved ones back home, my dwindling expense account. My instincts told me I had gone far enough.
Disappointed, we drove silently down the mountain and waited by the ocean for a plane to take us away. I had several lumps of hashish in my pocket that I had forgotten about, until a scary man in civilian clothes at the airport examined my passport, asked me what I had been taking pictures of, and if I would be coming back to Morocco.
He let me go after a half hour interrogation, and I quickly went to the bathroom and swallowed several grams of hash while putting the rest of it in the hole in the floor that served as a toilet.
By the time I was on the plane toward Spain, I was flying. The undulating fields, dirt paths, mountain ranges and coastline of Morocco danced below me, as mosque prayer songs sang in my head.