Cannabis remains Albania’s hit export
by Micha on 02/08/2017 | Legal & Politics
Following the media-friendly operations against Albania's cannabis farmers, the country developed into the continent’s largest cannabis producer. Read more about it here.
Since the last parliamentary elections in Albania, which were won by the incumbent socialist government led by Prime Minister Rama, the Balkan country’s accession to the EU is on the agenda again. In this respect, cannabis is always a hot item as Albania has developed into Europe’s largest producer of cannabis over the past decade.
Cannabis is an important source of income for Albania
As a result of the media-friendly police operation almost 2 years ago in the small town of Lazarat, where the majority of Albanian cannabis was grown until 2014, the cultivation and trade in cannabis have spread. A few days before the EU was to decide on Albania’s status as an accession candidate, the army entered the mountain village of Lazarat. What ensued was a three-day battle with the aim of softening up the EU, despite the Albanian state tolerating the cannabis trade. The permanent social and economic instability that arose following the Communist era has propelled the cannabis plant to the most important source of income for Albanian agriculture in the post-Communist era. Because the Communists deported unwanted families to Lazaret, the village developed a seriously critical attitude towards the regime in Tirana, which continues to the present day. After severe criticism by the UN and the EU at the start of the millennium, the Albanian government began to fight the cultivation of cannabis in the region for the first time. In 2007, after a number of skirmishes with the police, the citizens of Lazarat destroyed the only police station in the village. It was never rebuilt. After the incident, the police let the farmers, whom they considered as intractable, simply be. It is said that in the village of Lazarat itself, more than 90% of the population grew cannabis at some point.
Cannabis plants worth €3.5 billion seized
When Albanian police units tried to seize the small town in the early morning of 16 June 2014, they were welcomed with machine guns, Panzerfausts and mortar shells. Although the area around the mountain village, with its 7000 inhabitants, is now controlled by police and army units, the prohibited plant remains the most important economic factor in many rural regions of the country. Cultivation has been expanding ever since, and not only towards the inaccessible mountains on the Greek border. Over the past year, Albanian anti-drugs units seized 2.3 million cannabis plants and arrested 250 suspects in the course of 1250 operations. The year before, 650,000 plants were seized. The alleged total market value of the plants seized in 2016 amounts to €3.5 billion, which equals half of the Albanian GDP. Despite crop yields increasing, the EU praised the Albanian government for its tough action against cannabis farmers in 2016. However, Brussels is afraid, and not without reason, that these Albanian operations are mainly showpieces. Brussels criticises the fact that the big boys behind the scenes are always allowed to escape unscathed. In fact, almost 3 years after the police operation in Lazarat, a mere 10 individuals are still in jail for growing cannabis or having shot at the police. All of the organisers who are and were responsible for the financing and the infrastructure have so far been able to get away.
Corruption at the highest level
In April 2017, the incumbent Prime Minister Rama had to fire his Home Secretary, Tahiri, who was responsible for the operations in Lazarat, but he did so only very reluctantly. Tahiri had already made the headlines in 2015, as he had allowed the cultivation of cannabis to transfer away from Lazarat to the whole region, and was said to have even benefited from it. That, at least, was claimed by the former head of Tahiri’s own drugs squad, Dritan Zagani in a video in 2015. Zagani, in the meantime, has found asylum in Switzerland after he was indicted for corruption and drug trafficking in Albania in 2014, and fled to Switzerland overnight. The former Home Secretary denies all charges. All in all, all political parties in Albania accuse one another of benefiting from the cultivation of cannabis. As current developments suggest, neither the Democrats, who were in power from 2005 until 2013, nor the Socialists seem to be actually willing to do anything about cannabis cultivation and trade.
Perfect conditions for cultivating cannabis
While UNODC, which has had an office in the capital city of Tirana since 1998, estimated that the annual production in Albania in 2014 amounted to 900 tonnes with a total value of €4.5 billion, no reliable figures regarding the total amount of cannabis that is produced in the country have been published since the police operations three years ago; only the rather meaningless total number of plants seized. In fact, Albanian and international media regularly report that the cultivation of cannabis has increased as a result of the shift towards inhospitable regions. With a few exceptions, the whole southern area of the country consists of inaccessible mountains with a Mediterranean climate perfectly suited to the cultivation of cannabis. This trend is confirmed by Italian helicopter pilots, who have been searching for cannabis fields together with the Albanian police since 2015.
Part of the Albanian harvest is shipped along the Adriatic coast to the neighbouring countries of Italy and Greece. Part is transported to other neighbouring EU states via the Balkan route. From there, it can be easily transported to any country within the Schengen zone. The Italian fiscal police has suspected for many years that the mafia is responsible for the transport and resale of Albanian buds.
Legal Status of Cannabis in Albania
Cannabis is illegal in Albania. However, “possession of a daily dose” of illegal substances, which includes cannabis, is not punished. Cultivation and trafficking are penalised with jail sentences of 5 to 15 years.
On the black market, one would pay $4 to $8 for 5 g of cannabis, which is of lower quality and less effective than cannabis cultivated indoors.
As can been seen for decades now from countries such as Mexico and Morocco, the cultivation of cannabis cannot be exterminated with special units, helicopters and other repressive measures as long as the plant is of economic essence to a region, or even an entire nation. Only regulation at the international level will make it possible to control the cultivation of cannabis and its criminal infrastructure, as well as its protagonists, in Albania, or in Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Panama, or Mexico for that matter.
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