I followed my new friend in to the ornately decorated halls of the Dar al-Hadith Hassania building. The zelij (tile) covered walls and cedar wood carved doors surrounding a bubbling fountain made this the fanciest university I had ever attended. But upon entering the classroom everything was familiar. Students chatted in clumps and others were deeply engrossed in reviewing notes. I was out of place as the only non-Muslim and the only woman with uncovered hair but in classic Moroccan fashion I was instantly welcomed. The students were preparing to debate the legalization of marijuana in their English class. All these students were studying for their masters in Islamic studies at the most prestigious religious educational institution in Morocco.
The class quickly settled down when the teacher arrived and the debate started. The students command of English was impressive in presenting clear and concise arguments. The pro-legalization team concluded that the economic benefits to the state out weighed the health risks to the users. Just like you cannot prohibit people from eating sugar and smoking cigarettes because it is unhealthy, Marijuana cannot be outlawed due to some bad heath effects especially when there are also medicinal and industrial uses for it. On the other hand, the con team said the risks outweighed the benefits. Smoking marijuana or hashish could cause cancer, the death of brain cells, users become less motivated to work and criminal activity increases. They concluded that the state must not value the economy over the health of society. The debate was reminiscent of my own experience debating the topic in my ethics class last semester at Georgetown. In the end the pro-legalization team won and both sides agreed that legalizing the growth of the plant for industrial or medical uses was beneficial.
The students were passionate in their arguments but one student clarified that in reality it is for the ulema, scholars on national religious council, and the parliament to decide if legalization was in line with both Morocco’s religious identity and economic strategy. The class debate parallels an on going national discussion of the legalization of farming cannabis for industrial and medical uses. Morocco is second only to Afghanistan in the production of hashish, resin made from the cannabis plant, and its growth is the main economic livelihood of many farmers in the north. The recreational use of hashish or marijuana will likely remain a criminal offense. The use of drugs, because they cause harm to the body, is forbidden in Islam. It seems unlikely then that Morocco, with its laws based on the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence, would decriminalize the consumption of these drugs in the near future. But the economic benefits from legalizing cannabis for industrial or medical use would be very tangible in Morocco.
I never expected to hear a debate on the legalization of marijuana in Morocco, let alone at a state run religious education center. But interacting with these students, who are likely to become imams or professors of Islamic studies after they graduate, in such an engaging and open-minded manner is a reminded of the real purpose of higher education and especially study abroad: creating space to engage in dialogue with perspectives different than your own.