Moroccan lawmakers hosted an unprecedented debate on Wednesday on legalizing cannabis for medical and industrial purposes in a country where tens of thousands depend on growing it for a living.
There have been growing calls among politicians and civil society groups for the crop to be legalized, to boost development in the northern Rif region where it is cultivated, and MPs invited experts to parliament to discuss the possible benefits.
Morocco is one of the world's top exporters of the drug, known locally as "kif," despite claims by the authorities that they have reduced the area of land where it is cultivated by 60 percent over the past decade.
Campaigners argue that illegal traffickers reap vast profits while the majority of cannabis farmers struggle to make a living.
Ahmed Benomar, the planning director of Morocco's agency for the promotion and development of the north, called for the state to subsidize legal exploitation of the drug to benefit the small-scale farmers and stop the illegal trade.
"We have done feasibility studies on the medical and industrial use of cannabis, and we found that farmers would earn less than they do by selling it illegally," he told the assembled MPs, experts and civil society activists.
"So we are proposing that the state subsidize its legal exploitation and support the integrated development of the region, to put an end to the illegal trade."
Some 90,000 households, or 760,000 Moroccans, depend on kif production, according to official figures, while record hauls of illegally-trafficked Moroccan hashish have been announced in neighboring Spain this year.
Chakib al-Khayari, a human rights activist and campaigner, said that the legal exploitation of kif would be a major boost for the northern region, home to 15 percent of Morocco's population.
"We are not here to confront the drug trafficking networks, but to defend the small farmers so that they might benefit legally from cultivating cannabis," he said.
MPs with Morocco's Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), a liberal opposition party founded by a politician close to the king, vowed to work on a bill to regulate the cannabis industry.
Cannabis use for medicinal purposes has been authorized in a growing number of Western countries, including Holland, Spain, Germany, Italy, Britain, Canada, Australia, several U.S. states, and most recently the Czech Republic.