The number of suspected cannabis plantations in Albania has been slashed to just 88, down from over 2,000 a year ago, Prime Minister Edi Rama said in a letter to his EU counterparts as he urged them to help the country progress towards accession to the bloc.
Albania was given EU candidate status in 2014, but EU foreign ministers stressed at the time that the Balkan country would have to make progress on tackling corruption and organised crime — much of it connected to drug cultivation and trafficking — in order to progress towards accession negotiations.
At its peak, about half of Albania’s GDP was earned from the cultivation of cannabis. Much of the production was located around the southern town of Lazarat, which produced 900 tonnes of cannabis annually worth €4.5bn.
In the letter, published on the Albanian government’s website on November 20, Rama outlined some of the steps taken by his government to stamp out the drugs business as well as wider efforts to tackle organised crime and overhaul the judiciary.
He reported a “stunning change” revealed by air surveillance missions over Albania carried out by Italy's financial police, the Guardia di Finanza. “Last year, the Guardia's air surveillance over Albania reported 2,086 suspected cannabis plantations across Albania. The information led to scores of arrests and the destruction of crops,” Rama wrote. A year later, surveillance revealed just 88 suspected plantations.
“In other words, Albania is no longer Europe's cannabis capital, as some media have enjoyed calling it. The cannabis industry is dying. We are aiming to bring it to a full stop, once and for all, by the end of this year,” the prime minister wrote.
Highlighting the scale of the problem, Rama outlined the conditions that had allowed the drugs industry to flourish in Albania. “In the early lawless years following the fall of our dictatorship, the cultivation of cannabis seemed for some an easy answer to hard times and chaos. It represented quick profits. In the early years, it wasn't even illegal,” he wrote. “Later, police, prosecutors and judges could be easily bought off. There was political protection from the highest levels of government. Gang leaders enjoyed prestige and local admiration.”
A significant step was taken in 2014, immediately before EU foreign ministers met to decide whether to give Albania candidate status, when a major operation to wipe out cannabis cultivation at Lazarat, Albania’s so-called “marijuana mountain” was launched.
In July, Rama pledged that all large-scale cannabis plantations would be eradicated by the end of this year.
Still, the prime minister pointed out, there is much still to be done. In particular, while Albania may no longer be a major drugs producer, the illicit trade routes developed over the last couple of decades are still part of international drug trafficking networks. He also appealed for support from fellow European governments to catch Albanian crime bosses and bring them to justice.
The reform process so far has not been easy. Steps towards judicial reforms have been repeatedly thwarted by the opposition, despite pressure from the EU and US to push ahead with the changes. A former member of Rama’s own government, ex-interior minister Saimir Tahiri, has been linked to drug traffickers by wiretapped conversations leaked to the Italian media, with the resultant scandal highly embarrassing to Rama’s government.