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Moroccan Mountain high

A JOURNEY INTO MOROCCO’S HIGH MOUNTAIN CANNABIS CULTURE

Morocco is not only a land of delicious food and mouthwatering coffee, it is also the world’s largest producer of cannabis, with an estimated 134,000 hectares under cultivation.

Words and photos by CHRIS FOWLIE

THE highlands around the Rif Mountains, which face the Mediterranean Sea in the north of the country, account for more than forty per cent of global hashish production. Largely driven by the close proximity to the millions of cannabis consumers in Europe, hash is now Morocco’s biggest source of foreign currency. At least 800,000 people are directly employed in the industry, contributing at least 2 billion euros to the local economy.

Cannabis was first recorded in Ketema – now ground zero for dodgy hash smugglers and the occasional tourist disappearance – in the 15th Century. Today, most is smuggled to Spain and on to Europe by high speed motor boat departing from the northern ports of Martel, Oued Laous, Boh Ahmed, Nador, Tetoaun and Tanger. A lot also goes inside trucks and cars on ferries. In fact the smugglers have become so proficient and have opened up enough routes with their bribes and corruption they have caught they eye of the Columbian cartels. Coke is now being traffiked into Europe via established hash smuggling channels – another example of prohibition encouraging the spread of hard drugs.

THE LAW IN MOROCCO

Morocco is a hash and caffeine culture. Those two drugs are commonplace, whereas alcohol is against the law. Today cannabis is also officially prohibited and strictly punished but this has only been the case since Morocco gained independence from Spain in 1956, and shortly after the King granted the Rif Mountain areas permission to cultivate cannabis. This exemption has never been rescinded, and for the locals at least, hash can be consumed fairly openly.

Tourists are another story, being an easy source of bribes for the underpaid cops. I was told the police have no right to search people, but the general advice was to keep a low profile and restrict any smoking to the hotel.

MEANWHILE, BACK ON THE FARM

Having said that, we were not here to sit around the hotel. Chefchaoun is known as the gateway to the Rif Mountains and the start of cannabis country. It’s also bloody cold and rains a lot. After noticing a familiar smell and click of the lighter, I gingerly approached the hotel boy and asked very politely and nonchalantly whether he might possibly know anywhere… oh yes of course, he smiled, and was back in a flash with some very nice unpressed hash powder. Upon further testing it was determined to be of top quality so a question was put about perhaps paying a visit to the grower. Of course, he said, we do the package trip!

For the very reasonable fee of about NZ$150 we were picked up early the next morning by Grande Taxi and driven high up into the mountains near Bab Taza, where we were entertained with stories, fed delicious home cooked Moroccan food, shown how they make hash with a very informative and instructional workshop, taken on a tour around the fields, given some to try, and after a long and very enjoyable day were taken back home again for a well earned rest.

Our host Mustapha is a taxi driver during the off season but during the farming months his entire family is kept busy tending cannabis terraces that stretch high into the surrounding hillsides. Everyone around here does it, he says, and the local cops are paid enough to look away.

At several points along the winding roads to and from his isolated farm house we were beckoned and whistled at by young men on the road side, eager to “do business”.

CANNABIS CULTURE IN MOROCCO

Morocco is a Muslim country, where alcohol is forbidden but cannabis is widely tolerated. There are many Sufis in Morocco and cannabis use among them is commonplace.

Most Moroccans use cannabis kif or hashish pollen in a sebsi pipe. The hash pollen is collected from semi-wild, seeded cannabis flowers, grown on a massive scale for an export market that now helps sustain the Moroccan economy.

Nakhla or hookah pipes are common, even three headed beasts like that shown below, but they are only used for tobacco.

Mustapha explained the local cannabis culture to me. Moroccans smoke their ganja with tobacco. They put what they call Kif in a Sebsi, a long pipe made from several sections of wood with a small clay bowl, and they put hash into cigarettes.

Hash comes as loose unpressed powder, while Kif (or “grass”) is what is left over from hash production. It has been beaten and crushed and is very low quality, however can still be used as a mixer with the hash powder.

It is not unusual to see Moroccan men in traditional jeleba outfits in cafes smoking their sebsi pipes, often within view of nearby policemen. In the medinas of Chefchaoun and Fez the touts were relentless. “Pssst… get high before you die?” (must have assumed I was straight) “I have something to blow your mind… and no one will know!” (was he going to secretly kill me?)

All I wanted was to satiate my intense munchies, and what’s great about Morocco is they eat these mouth-watering giant crumpets as big as dinner plates, and you can always get a delicious coffee to go with your top quality hashish.

ARRIVING IN MOROCCO, AND GETTING AROUND

  • Getting around by bus or train is easy. Grande Taxis (old beat up Mercedes) can be hired for trips between towns while petite taxies are used within towns. Getting lost in the Medinas is part of the adventure.
  • Touts will be waiting anywhere there are tourists. They are not dangerous, just annoying and relentless. Don’t talk to them. Scoring from them would be risky and more expensive.
  • Ask a taxi driver, but don’t be timid – tell them exactly what you want and don’t take any bullshit. Always remember when getting in a taxi to negotiate the fare before it sets off!
  • The safest way for a traveler to make a good connection is to ask discreetly at the hotel. Often the belhop will be pleased to make some extra money. Plus, tourists are recorded with the police as being their guest so the hotel has an interest in tourists remaining safe and happy. If caught, offer to “pay the fine now”.
  • When shopping, whether for hash or slippers, haggling is a national sport. Get into it, but be warned: attempts to cheat are also commonplace (eg fake souvineers, fake hash).

HANDY WORDS TO KNOW IN MOROCCO

  • Any French or Spanish!
  • Hello/Goodbye = Salam/Besalam
  • Thanks/No thanks = shoukran/la shoukran
  • Baraka! = Stop!
  • Pollen = dry sift hash powder
  • Hadala = the best hash (should cost about NZ$5-7/gram)
  • Grass = crap but makes a better mix than tobacco
  • Sebsi = traditional Moroccan smoking pipe.

[Originally published in NORML News Winter/Spring 2010]

Switzerland: hemp and hash

In 2002 Chris Fowlie toured Europe where he researched cannabis policies and cultural practices. This article examines Switzerland, which is set to become the country with the world’s most progressive drug policy.

PUBLISHED IN NORML NEWS SUMMER 2003

While Switzerland leads Europe in reforming its drug laws and rolling back prohibition, back in New Zealand the new government has said it will maintain the same failed policy for at least another three years. Europeans can walk into stores and purchase their cannabis, but New Zealanders are considered by their government to be too stupid or inferior to have this level of freedom.

There are now well over 400 stores selling high-THC cannabis in Switzerland, officially for any reason other than smoking it, plus another 300-odd hemp farmers, processors and hash makers. Their fine produce keeps not only the locals happy, but also thousands of hemp enthusiasts from neighbouring Germany, France and Italy who cross the border in search of the legendary Swiss mountain high.

To get the low-down on how this situation came about, I visited the industry lobby group, Swiss Hemp Coordination (SHK), which also conveniently shares offices with CannaTrade and Swiss Hemp Times in Bern.

Roman of SHK told me there had been a long tradition of growing hemp in the Alps, but by the beginning of the 20th century there was little market for hemp and farming it there had largely stopped. In 1951 the Swiss introduced their first anti-drug laws following substantial post-war pressure from America. Smoking cannabis was forbidden just like in the rest of the world, although it was not made a punishable offence until 1971.

Things stayed much this way until 1993, when a legal advocate examined the drug laws and discovered that the prohibition on cannabis only applied to smoking it, and not to cultivating or possessing it. He advertised in some farmer’s journals seeking people to grow hemp for him. Eighty-five contacted him and in 1994 they grew 0.5-1 hectare each. The police looked at these fields of cannabis with interest, but they did not know what to do with it. Unfortunately, the legal advocate and the farmers also did not know what to do with it, and when harvest time came the advocate left the farmers to deal with it alone. About 60% of the crop rotted in the field, and many farmers lost money.

In 1995 some farmers continued to grow hemp and learnt how to process it. The first hemp stores also opened in this year, selling high-THC hemp flowers (buds) for example in aroma bags to put near your undies to make them smell nice, or to put in the bath, or just to look at. By 1997 there were hundreds of hemp stores all over Switzerland and some were so busy there were queues out the door.

Like everywhere else in the world, there is a huge demand for cannabis in Switzerland, but the difference here is that the government understands that punitive sanctions and harsh laws are pointless. This current trade is not considered problematic by anyone, other than that it is not technically legal, so the government decided to change the drug laws, not to try to get rid of the hemp outlets, but in order to control them.

The current situation is one of virtually no rules other than the prohibition on smoking cannabis. Outlets do not have clear rules and regulations to follow, and could be raided at any time. Shortly before I visited in early August, police had closed six stores in Zürich and another two in Bern. The police raids are more for show than effect, as other stores will soon open to replace them.

Every store I visited was full of customers and doing a brisk trade. The quality of the Swiss hemp was generally very good, with many Dutch strains available as well as lots of exciting local ones to sample. The prices were the cheapest I found in Europe, with a gram retailing for about 3-4 euros or half what you would pay in Amsterdam. In contrast to the Netherlands, most of the Swiss cannabis is grown outdoors, which made a really nice change for me as I prefer soaring outdoor Sativas to the heavy indica stone. A substantial amount is also grown in greenhouses, with the smallest proportion grown under lights.

There are other differences with the Dutch approach. Although there are many outlets to buy your hemp, there are very few places to smoke it, because it is the act of smoking that is the illegal part. Space cakes and cookies are still illegal, and it is also hard to find hash in the stores. Even the stores themselves can be hard to find, with many having no signage or just a hemp leaf sticker in the window.

In Bern I purchased an 8 gram greenhouse-grown Mango Bud that was sold just for sniffing, and then went across the road to buy some White Widow which was labelled that it was only to be put in the bath. I thought that would be a waste of a fine bud and smoked it instead, and it was only at that point that any law was broken.

The Swiss border towns have the busiest stores as many customers are from other countries. For instance, hemp stores in Geneva are frequented by the French, while the southern region of Ticino has many Italian visitors who have absolutely no interest in the mountains. The northern city of Basel straddles the German border and has about 70 stores selling hemp. It would be physically impossible for the German authorities to stop the flow of Swiss cannabis into their borders, as all people have to do is jump on the tram or even walk over the border.

The Swiss Government would like to make cannabis legal but that is against the 1961 international drug control treaty which they had signed, so they have come up with a solution that looks set to take them even further than the Netherlands. The Dutch tolerance policy came from the judicial system who did not want to prosecute people, but in Switzerland the tolerance policy is coming from the government and parliament. If we can say that the Netherlands turns a blind eye to their coffeeshops, the Swiss will be keeping their eyes open.

The new law will comply with international treaties by banning the cultivation, sale and possession of cannabis and cannabis seeds. Certainly on the face of it, this does sound much worse, however the regulations attached to the deliberately vague federal law will allow each canton to not punish people if they follow certain rules, for example, no exporting, no sales to minors and no advertising. This so-called “principle of opportunity” is a core part of the Swiss constitution which allows each local canton to interpret and apply federal regulations as it sees fit. Cantons have their own rights and substantial space to interpret the law. More conservative areas could decide to not allow even low-THC hemp sales, while areas with more liberal attitudes could license high-THC hemp sales subject to their own regulations. For instance, cantons could specify that hemp farms must be below a certain size, or not within 10km of a school, or whatever else they decided. Biel (near Bern) and Basel (near the German border) already have coffeeshops and these will probably be licensed legally.

The government’s bill will be voted on by the National Council, and if approved it will take effect in March 2003. It has already passed the more conservative Canton’s Council so the chances of it passing the bigger chamber are good. However if any changes are made to the draft bill by the National Council in September, the law will have to go back to the other two chambers and will not take effect in March.

This could be a real problem, because even more important for the government than the hemp laws are the heroin laws. The Swiss have a very progressive policy for opiate users which includes pure heroin on prescription, methadone programmes and clean injecting rooms, but this policy is only legal under an emergency temporary law that runs out in 2004. Because of this, there is substantial pressure to not make any changes to the draft law so that it can take effect before the temporary law runs out.

If that does happen the Swiss will be the only country in the world where cannabis sales will be regulated and controlled by law, and from that we could undoubtedly learn a lot.

Haarlem Coffeeshop College, Netherlands

By Chris Fowlie, President, NORML New Zealand, 2002

Just ten minutes by train from Amsterdam, the quiet town of Haarlem is providing a model example to the rest of the world of how coffeeshops can best be run.

Nol van Schaik runs Haarlem’s three Willie Wortel coffeeshops and Maruska der Blaauw the Global Hemp Museum. Together with Wernard Brunning, who opened the very first coffeeshop in 1972, they have started a coffeeshop training course. As soon as I heard, I knew I had to go.

Haarlem Cannabizness

Chris Fowlie with Nol van SchaikThe Coffeeshop College “cannabizness” course aims to export the successful Dutch coffeeshop model around the world. It was started after Nol co-founded the Dutch Experience coffeeshop in Stockport UK with medical marijuana advocate Colin Davies and sparked huge interest all around the world.

Courses are scheduled for the last week of each month, but this time I was the only student to turn up which meant I had personal one-on-one tuition and the opportunity to structure classes to teach me exactly what I needed to know.

First came the theory and the development of the Dutch policy. There is a common perception that the Dutch Government must have thought of the idea but actually the first moves were from brave and principled people acting in defiance of the law.

The Lowland Seed Company started it all in 1969 when they sold and gave away thousands of cannabis seedlings from a barge near the centre of Amsterdam, in order to convince people to grow their own.

Then in 1972, Wernard and his friends opened the Mellow Yellow, with one house dealer sitting in front of the bar like a customer. Less than ten grams in pre-bagged deals was kept in an old jacket hanging on the wall and nearby a sign read “The management is not responsible for people’s belongings left on the premises”. If the jacket was ever found it had nothing to do with the cafe and there was nothing the police could do.

After five attempts the police gave up raiding the Mellow Yellow and it was followed by the Bulldog, the Milkyweg and others. Eventually the government, police and health authorities all agreed that the coffeeshops were a good thing, and formalised the tolerance policy with licenses, regulations and regular inspections. The point is that if the Dutch pot pioneers had waited for coffeeshops to happen, they may still have been waiting.

Dutch cannabis policy was designed primarily to separate the markets for pot and hard drugs and best protect young people. The Mayor sets the rules and so they vary slightly in each municipality. Haarlem’s 16 cannabis cafes have worked closely with the council and the police and their AHOYG rules have since been widely copied by other municipalities: The A is for no Alcohol, H for no Hard drugs, O means no Overlast or nuisance, Y is no Youth, meaning those under 18 (it used to be 16, and now those youth who are potentially the most vulnerable in society go to criminals to get their cannabis), and the G is for the Gram limit. Coffeeshops are supposed to hold no more than 500 grams in total and limit individual sales to less than 5 grams.

Dealer at Willie Wortels Vending machine at Willie Wortels

Amsterdam gives coffeeshops the option of selling alcohol if they want, while Haarlem, like most towns, does not. Amsterdam also has a policy of wanting to reduce the number of coffeeshops over time by revoking their permits for even the tiniest infraction. This certainly keeps the coffeeshops on their toes and following the rules. If the rules are not followed, the coffeeshops are given yellow cards like in football. Finding an underage person on the premises brings one card, and possibly being forced to close for a week, while hard drugs will attract three cards and instant closure.

One of the oddest aspects of the Dutch tolerance policy is that it does not apply to commercial growers. Coffeeshops can sell out the front door, but there is no lawful way for them to get supplies in the back door. Seeds are legal, and so the coffeeshops work with the grow stores to develop ’grow circles’, where home growers share tips and expertise and coordinate their grow cycles and varieties so the coffeeshop is kept in a constant supply. All this must be done in secret just like in New Zealand, although the grow stores are very social places and there’s no pretending that all the gear is for tomatoes.

Chris at the microscope Hash by Nol

After the theory we got on with the practical. Lessons in judging and inspecting cannabis were done with the help of a loupé and digital microscope, and a smoke or two. It was fascinating to compare Nepalese temple balls with Maroccan hash and local keif, and to see the increased trichome density in a sativa haze compared to an indica skunk. I was taught a battery of tests for judging the quality of hash, none of which involved actually smoking it.

Then we covered the practical aspects of running a cafe and bar, with job schedules, storage control, hygiene, and guidelines for staff and management. I did two practical shifts, one behind the coffee bar and the other in the dealer’s booth.

Chris Dealing Chris making coffee

It was a wonderful experience to legally sell the world’s finest marijuana and hash to more than fifty consenting adults. Willie Wortels sells 13 types of grass (most popular: Power Plant and Sage), 10 types of hash and 9 types of machine-rolled joints. The grass is mostly locally grown Nederweit while the hash is mostly imported from the far corners of the world, although locals are increasingly making water hash and compressed “polm” from their crystal-coated bud trimmings.

Dutch coffeeshops have protected the health of their customers by ensuring only quality (mostly organic) produce are sold. All coffeeshops want a good reputation and they cannot get away with selling inferior hash or marijuana because their customers will come back and complain, unlike with an illegal dealer.

Mediweed PotchocWillie Wortel’s participates in the Medi Weit programme that offers half price cannabis to medical users. Growers are also encouraged to donate 10% of their crop or even just the leaves to be pollinated or made into canna-chocolate. About 400 Dutch pharmacies also sell medical marijuana provided by the company Maripharm.

On a field trip to the Interpolm grow store in Haarlem we found a group of growers sharing stories around a Pollinator machine. This Dutch invention is a silk-screen drum that you fill with marijuana and as it spins the THC-containing trichomes fall through the screen to be collected underneath. A thick layer lined the tray and to my delight I was given a big bag to try. It doesn’t get much better – or healthier – than smoking pure trichomes with absolutely no plant matter. They can even be added to your bedtime cocoa or sprinkled on your cornflakes.

Trichome hot chocolate Close up of some trichomes

I had earlier met the inventor of the Pollinator, Mila, in Amsterdam. She showed me a ten foot-long model called the Pollinator Forever (“you shovel, it tumbles”) which some German researchers had ordered. The German government allowed them to work with THC for the medical research they were conducting, but would not let them import it or grow any plants to get it. They had worked out a way of turning CBD, which still occurs in low-THC hemp, into THC. They needed a lot, so they had ordered the biggest Pollinator in order to process a field of hemp into the THC they wanted. Just like the pot smokers, scientists too must find devious ways to get around the absurd prohibition on cannabis.

Our field trip continued to Amsterdam, where I put my new knowledge to use evaluating the coffeeshops. We also happened to meet the inventor of the joint rolling machine, which churns out 120 conical joints in 20 minutes with no saliva, a minimum of paper and the option of your store logo printed on them. It’s just so civilised here.

Chris takes the test Trying out the ROOR bong

Finally the end of the week came and it was time to sit the test. I passed with 93% correct, which was the highest score so far and probably makes me the most suitably qualified person to start a coffeeshop in New Zealand.

I decided to celebrate the occasion with a trip to Dordrect for the annual Weed Cup. >>
More Photos of the Wilie Wortel Coffeeshop in Haarlem

Dealer at Willie Wortels Machine at Willie Wortels
Tony the dealer at Willie Wortels Inside Willie Wortels
Jointjars at Willie Wortels Jointjars at Willie Wortels

Dealer at Willie Wortels

NORML president passes Dutch coffeeshop course

NORML president passes Dutch coffeeshop course

Plans to open Cannabis Cafe in New Zealand
Published in NORML News, Winter 2002
(originally posted at http://norml.org.nz/News/chrisfowliecoffeshop.htm)

Chris Fowlie at the counter - student in training - click for more photos New Zealand NORML president Chris Fowlie has legally sold marijuana, been on Irish television, and passed the Coffeeshop College training course held in the Netherlands with the highest score yet.

The week-long Coffeeshop College course aims to teach budding canna-business people everything they need to know to run a cannabis cafe. It is run by Nol van Schaik, co-founder of the UK’s first cannabis café; Maruska de Bleuw, curator of the Global Hemp Museum; and Wernard Bruning who started Amsterdam’s first coffeeshop, the Mellow Yellow. The course includes intensive training on inspecting and evaluating top-quality hash and marijuana, safety and hygiene standards, cannabis harm reduction, the history and features of the Dutch coffeeshop policy, a field trip to some coffeeshops, and work experience in an actual cannabis café.

As part of the Coffeeshop College course, Chris legally weighed and sold about 50 deals of marijuana and hash over the counter of coffeeshop Willie Wortel’s Sativa, as he was interviewed by Irish TV and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Chris earlier this year was acquitted of a charge of possession of 0.7 grams of cannabis. The ruling set a new precedent that should prevent police searching people based on their opinion that someone smells of cannabis. As part of that case, Chris was allegedly defamed by the Dominion. Their subsequent “donation” enabled him to enrol in the Coffeeshop College course and travel the world researching alternative drug policies on behalf of Green MP Nandor Tanczos.

So far, he has investigated the medical marijuana clubs in San Francisco, the cannabis-friendly cafes in Vancouver, the police practice of not arresting cannabis users in the London borough of Lambeth, the UK’s cannabis-friendly cafes in Brixton and Bornemouth, and coffeeshops in the Netherlands.

“After seeing all the different approaches, there is no doubt in my mind that coffeeshops provide the best model for the controlled availability of cannabis,” Chris said. “Dutch cannabis use rates are barely one third that in New Zealand. The Dutch police, government and healthcare workers are all happy with the coffeeshops.”

“When I return to New Zealand in September, I intend to apply to the Government for a license to open a coffeeshop, which would provide the best quality cannabis to adults in a safe, controlled environment. If they heed the scholarly research and the large majority of submissions presented to the inquiry, they should support having cannabis cafes. If not, I am sure it will happen anyway because it is the right thing to do and people want it.”

The first Dutch coffeeshops opened before decriminalisation took place, and they played a key role in getting the law relaxed.