“A whole village full of weed! Crazy, really crazy! The plants are 3m high or so… The police don’t come here. There is a war with the police and all that is green is weed...”
Two stoned Dutch backpackers couldn’t believe their eyes. They had wandered into the small village of Lazarat in southern Albania and in a video posted to YouTube marveled over marijuana plants that were growing like a forest across the hills.
Close to the Greek border, Lazarat was once the epicentre of Albanian’s cannabis production that accounted for almost half the economy’s GDP, according to some estimates. The 3,000 inhabitants look like any other Albanian peasant in the video, except the old ladies in their black dresses sitting around chatting in the courtyards of their farm buildings are cleaning huge buds of marijuana and throwing them into plastic barrels awaiting export to the rest of Europe. Their children run between them playing cops and robbers, oblivious to the dope that surrounds them as the ladies snip away twigs and leaves with scissors.
Lazarat once produced some 900 tonnes of marijuana annually, according to drug enforcement agencies, making it the leading supplier of cannabis in Europe and a major transit zone for other drugs like heroin and cocaine. According to a US State Department Narcotics Control Report, in 2012 Albanian police seized over 21 tonnes of marijuana destined for European markets, notably Greece and Italy, nearly double that in 2011. Heroin and cocaine discoveries also more than doubled over the same period, to 87.7 kilograms and 4.6 kg respectively.
A study conducted by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) in 2012 showed that Albania was among the “big five” in the world for marijuana production and exporting to Europe, along with Morocco, Afghanistan, Lebanon and South Africa.
“The fight against cultivation and trafficking of cannabis is ongoing since 2000 [but] in the last years the cultivation increased to the extent that entire areas or villages, of which the most notorious is Lazarat, were beyond the reach of the police and other state authorities,” Gledis Gjipali, director of the think-tank European Movement in Albania (EMA), tells bne IntelliNews.
But all that has changed. Albania's interior minister, Saimir Tahiri, claimed in September that authorities have destroyed 99% of cannabis production in the country. The government was spurred into action by Albania’s bid to join the EU. The authorities launched a large-scale attack on the village in June 2014, the week before the EU was due to vote on Albania’s accession status.
The fighting began after a policeman was killed in a gun battle and two others were wounded during a patrol of the village. The police response was heavy and immediate: it launched a military-style operation using army helicopters and armoured personal carriers (APCs).
The special police units found themselves under intense machine gun fire and anti-tank rockets from the heavily-armed marijuana gangsters hidden in local houses. Sporadic gunfire continued for four days until the police eventually took control of the village. Fourteen people were arrested and heavy weapons, explosives and grenades were found in a search of the 130 houses in the village. Eventually the police made a bonfire of 102 tonnes of cannabis and over half a million marijuana plants, worth an estimated €6bn on the streets of Europe against the €14bn value of the entire economy in 2015, according to the World Bank.
The government claims it has broken the back of the drug business – and indeed, the impact of the police crackdown can already be seen. On November 15, BalkanInsight reported that drug sellers and users across Southeast Europe are feeling the fallout from the major marijuana bust in southern Albania in June 2014, which has reduced supplies on the black market and increased prices. “Once you could get four joints for 500 or 600 denars [around €10]. Today you can only get one for that price,” a user from the Macedonian capital, Skopje, told BalkanInsight. “And the quality? Well, no one guarantees it anymore.”
Cost of the clean-up
Yet there is still work to do. The residents of Lazarat and its neighbouring villages have not remained idle. Smaller-scale cannabis production has resumed, although it is now a riskier business as the police raids are more frequent and enforcement stricter. The drug mafia and police clash regularly and the region has retained a reputation for lawlessness.
The main issue of the government is to root out the corruption that the drug money enabled. Interior Minister Tahiri said in September: “Our war on drugs began in our ranks with police officers, who work with cannabis growers and drug traffickers,” adding that disciplinary measures or criminal proceedings have been launched against over 720 police officers, including those arrested for cooperation with gangsters so far in 2015.
The fight against drugs will be maintained, as PM Rama has made the whole issue political and public. In a recent speech he took the opposition Democratic Party to task for its failure to deal with the problem during its eight years in power under former prime minister Sali Berisha. “Why did they do nothing in 2013, in 2012, in 2011, in 2010, to react and uproot this cancer from Albania’s body? Thus, the logic says they were from head to toe connected to the industry of this criminal activity,” Rama said during a speech in parliament.
Ending the cannabis production was a brave thing to do, but it will have severe economic consequences for Albania. “There are billions and billions that until yesterday went somewhere, but not anymore as of today. This is an operation with colossal interests,” Rama said.
The prime minister is taking a big gamble. He torched half the productive capacity (albeit illegal and undesirable) of the country in a few days and was promptly rewarded with official accession status to the EU. But actual accession will take several years to complete and candidate-status brings little in the way of concrete economic benefits in the meantime. Indeed, there is no guarantee that Albania will ever be granted full membership of the EU.
"Demonstrating a clear will and proactive attitude in the fight against drugs, the government increases the support from the member states in the EU integrating process. In the last years the member states have [tended] to 'push the brakes' in this process, especially because of a lack of results in this area," Gjipali tells bne IntelliNews.
According to Gjipali, “The fight against organised crime, money laundering and drug trafficking will continue for many years and needs the continuous support of international partners, since Albanian state structures are still too weak to deal alone the pressure of criminal groups that are well financed with political connections.”
The current fight against the informal economy in Albania will also help to decrease the opportunities for such criminal groups to gather wealth and influence, says Gjipali. The campaign against the informal economy was launched on September 1.