Adventures In The Dope Trade (Cannabis series 3 of 5)

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by weedboss, May 7, 2003.

  1. Patrick Matthews Follows Some Hash on Its Journey From Morocco To London

    JULY 2002: Ketama, Rif Mountains, northern Morocco

    "Al Qinnab al Hindi" - Indian hemp - has been grown since time immemorial on the terraces surrounding Mount Tidiguine, near Ketama, in the eastern range of the Rif Mountains. However, European visitors to the area are often surprised at how scrawny the cannabis here looks. The closely grown plants resemble wizened nettles rather than the lush, leafy bush British enthusiasts might grow among the tomatoes at the bottom of their garden, and few are more than three feet tall.

    It's late July. If the crop was growing almost anywhere else in the northern hemisphere it would still be months away from maturity. In the Swiss Valais, for instance, upriver from Lake Geneva, the farmers wait until the end of September to harvest their towering specimens of "Alp King" and "Walliser Queen" ( Switzerland is likely to make cannabis fully legal this year, and the authorities turn a blind eye to open cultivation ). But here in Morocco the soil is poor and no rain has fallen for months. So the crop is galloping towards maturity, trying to set seed before it succumbs to drought. Already the lower leaves are yellow and withered.

    Other patches nearby look more promising; these, bigger and greener, will give 50 per cent higher yields. But then they have the benefit of irrigation and fertiliser. The owner of the more scrawny crop is Abdelhakk, a widower in his late fifties who also works as a waiter in a local cafe. And he has no wells near his patch of land.

    Across 2,000 square miles of the Rif, cannabis is the only crop of any importance, fuelled by demand not only from Europe, but also from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Hemp is fashionable in the West, and its advocates will tell you that the plant is an ecological panacea. But here it's not so benign. About 200,000 growers like Abdelhakk depend on this one crop, and they have steadily cleared the mountains' slopes of their indigenous pines, oaks and tamarisk. The taproots of the kif are loosening the subsoil, and any wind raises clouds of dust. But now it is harvest time, and day labourers have come from all over the country. They sit or squat by the roadside, hoping to be hired by bigger landowners to bring in the crop.

    Some growers in Ketama have mixed feelings about the cannabis boom, which they believe is ruining Morocco's reputation for high quality production. Abdelhakk's neighbour Hadi makes his own "double zero" - top-of-the-range hashish - some kif ( chopped marijuaua, smoked locally in a clay-ended wooden pipe called a sabsi ), and some high-potency hash oil, extracted with solvents. He sells directly to West European customers, who place their orders after sampling and then pick up their deliveries in Malaga, Spain. They could save more than half the UKP400 a kilo they'll pay by transporting the hashish there themselves, but most think it's worth paying the extra to avoid the risk of spending two-and-a-half years in prison in Rabat, the Moroccan capital.

    Hadi is more prosperous than most of his neighbours, though not as rich as local community leaders such as the El-Hamraoui family. ( You can find the El-Hamraouis and their friends in Ketama's hotel bar most evenings, listening to the band and checking out the dancing girls with the weary indifference of Tony Soprano in the Bada Bing. ) Hadi isn't a natural optimist, and his usual mild gloom has deepened since some long-standing friends and customers showed him a sample of "Nederhash" - Dutch hashish made using just the same screens he has in his farm to shake the resin powder from the plants. "Soon there's going to be nothing left for us," he prophesies.

    Abdelhakk worries less about this than the price he'll get this year from Ahmad, a stockily built younger member of the El-Hamraoui family. Ahmad sells him his seeds, then each year buys the resulting crop - a little less than 100kg of dried plants. Depending on the state of the market, he'll pay Abdelhakk between 50 and 100 dirhams per kilo ( UKP2.50 to UKP6.50 ). In recent years the price has been drifting downwards.

    After fixing a price, Ahmad sends round an ancient artisan called Ziat, who sits on the shady side of Abdelhakk's cottage and, in the course of a day or two, beats the dried resin gland off through a screen to yield the powder called chira - mixed, naturally, with a fair bit of Rif dust and dried leaf fragments. Abdelhakk enjoys a pipe or two of kif, but Ziat rarely joins him. "I get high enough from the powder," he says.

    Ahmad later arrives in his Renault 12 to pick up Ziat and the bags of chira, which disappear into his family's processing warehouse, a long, almost windowless building set back out of sight of the road. A few weeks later, hashish - after being mechanically pressed and wrapped in plastic - will emerge ( though Hadi has little good to say about its quality - this level of hashish is known as "soap bar" in the business ).

    Not that this bothers Omar, a specialist contractor with the job of loading the "resina" on to his specially adapted Ford Transits, each of which will carry the standard consignment of 250kg. One of Omar's men will drive the van west to the picturesque Rif town of Chefchaouen, and then north to the coast. Omar has little fear that he'll be subject to more than a cursory search before he gets there; the drivers are also responsible for "buying the route" - paying off the necessary police on the way to the coast. So within a few days the driver will unload his consignment at a luxurious beach house with a private pier, owned by a well-known trafficking baron.

    NOVEMBER 2002: the Straits of Gibraltar

    The following night a small motorboat slips across the sea to Spain, and returns the same night. According to custom, it has dropped its load of hashish, anchored with a weight, just offshore, noting its precise location on a GPS ( global positioning by satellite ) set.

    Soon afterwards, Bill Butcher, a veteran south London crime figure, now in active retirement in Marbella, gets a phone call telling him the GPS co-ordinates. His employees go out in their own boat; soon afterwards a new delivery arrives at the warehouse Bill rents in an industrial zone near the coast.

    In the past, Bill has been content to sell to his Dutch contacts. These send their own vans to drive shipments to Rotterdam, which is the clearing-house for much of Europe's cannabis, Polish-grown skunk as well as Moroccan hashish. But a couple of months ago Bill was introduced to a local freight agent, a freelance who specialises in finding cargoes for British freight-transport firms on their way home. The agent has assembled a consignment of olive oil, ceramic tiles and textiles to fill a 20-ton road trailer. The driver is quite unaware that 20 of the boxes of "textiles" contain the El-Hamraouis' hashish.

    Still, the consignment is now inside the European Union and will receive relatively cursory treatment from any EU country's customs officers ( Bill Butcher is an unwanted beneficiary of the Union's commitment to the free movement of goods and services ). And the driver is lucky. British Customs officers carry out random checks at Calais, using sniffer dogs and portable X-ray machines. Most weeks a handful of British trailer drivers wind up in Lille prison, often, and justifiably, protesting their innocence. But this lorry is waved through on to the Eurotunnel rail transporter.

    DECEMBER 2002: Lea Valley, east London

    The load is broken up at the freight-transport firm's depot in north London; the following day the firm innocently delivers Bill Butcher's 20 boxes to the Lea Valley, where he has rented another warehouse. There the boxes will sit for a fortnight or so - to ensure that, should Customs have picked up the trail, no one will be caught red-handed.

    Now the illegal drugs market works its magic again, turning a consignment worth UKP200,000 wholesale into a product with an ultimate retail value of more than UKP700,000. Five large-scale drug dealers take delivery of 50kg each, and in their turn sell 10kg loads to a total of 25 smaller operators. It is the latter who will take physical delivery - - the five top wholesalers have as little contact with their stock-in-trade as do City futures dealers. And none of these 30 dealers is likely to pay cash-in-hand; again, like the City, the drugs business runs on credit. The difference is that since debtors can't be taken to court, the sanction for default is a beating - or worse.

    April 2003: a Terraced House Somewhere in South London

    The big-time dealers live in green-belt houses and tend not to be cannabis connoisseurs - their tastes run more to charlie and golf, though at least one goes in for body-building as a hobby and gobbles up Class C steroids. My friend Rupert, in contrast, who just buys single kilos, has a passion for what he sells; so, I understand, does his main supplier, who lives in a council flat and buys 10kg at a time. Like most small-timers, Rupert only relies on dealing to supplement his main income, which in his case comes from restoring furniture.

    He doesn't believe in overselling his wares. "Nothing special, but it does the business," he says of this consignment. "It's just a good honest smoke." His supplier happens to be friends with one of Hadi's regular visitors, and so he has a little of Hadi's lovely double zero; but he's only selling this to customers who are also willing to take some of the bog-standard stuff. Rupert believes, rightly or wrongly, that his contacts further up the supply chain carry enough weight to ensure that the hashish isn't adulterated any further. People in the business often tell hair-raising tales of English gangsters adulterating soap bar with bitumen. But others believe that most of the unauthorised ingredients are added before the hashish leaves the Rif.

    The cannabis business has come a long way since the 1970s, when most of the importers were middle-class hippies who bought from small growers such as Hadi. Rupert comes from a professional family, but he was educated at his local comprehensive school, and he isn't bothered by rubbing shoulders with gangsters. "This business has totally changed," he says. "These days it's basically run by nightclub owners. It's a soft drug, so they can tell themselves that they're not doing much damage to anybody."

    There is one class of customers who believe that they're doing themselves some good. These are the medicinal users, in particular multiple sclerosis patients. Rupert sees three of these regularly. One is a student, who has lost much of his eyesight and the ability to control his limbs precisely. But when he is on dope he can see well enough to read from a computer screen and he can co-ordinate his hands well enough to type. "So with cannabis he can actually write essays," Rupert says. "When you read some newspapers, it's all about how such and such a type of skunk has such and such an effect. But most of the medical users don't have those connections - they just go to their local gangster-type dealers."

    Sid is another customer, who buys a couple of ounces from Rupert, plus a small piece of double zero. He's a successful senior probation officer, married with two children. His habit of starting most days with a pipe or two ( he doesn't like or approve of tobacco ) has no noticeable impact on his performance with clients, or when he's in front of the magistrates or Crown Court judges. Once or twice I've known him to announce that he's giving up dope, but he always relapses. Why? "It's just pure pleasure, I suppose," he says. "I just find it so relaxing." But he groans when he samples the combined labours of Abdelhakk, Ziat and the El-Hamraoui family. "Bloody soap bar," he coughs.

    Some names have been changed.

    'Cannabis Culture' by Patrick Matthews ( Bloomsbury, UKP7.99 )

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