Nicholas Watson in Prague -
News on August 23 that Albanian police had seized over a tonne of cannabis bound for Italy has put the spotlight on this EU-aspirant country's growing importance as a source of the continent's marijuana.
Albanian police spokesperson Laura Totraku was reported by BalkanInsight as saying that a routine patrol carried out by border police in Vlora together with Italian officials on the Karaburun peninsula came across the cannabis stuffed in 38 duffle bags, waiting to be smuggled across the border.
Albania is now widely considered 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, last year police seized over 21 tonnes of cannabis 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.
The Italian financial police reckons Albania's marijuana production earns more than €4.5bn a year (a figure the Albanians dispute). The country's official total exports in 2012 amounted to €1.7bn.
The US State Department puts the staggering growth in marijuana seizures in Albania over the past year to a rise in enforcement activity attributable to better police training and techniques, as well as increased marijuana production. Most of that is centred on the mountainous area around the town of Lazarat in southern Albania, located near the border with Greece. According to an article published in Global Post, intelligence reports suggest the village cultivated more than 60 acres of land this year, an estimated 300,000 plants that could yield as much 500 tonnes of marijuana. Cannabis is usually planted in May and harvested in September.
With up to 90% of Lazarat's residents – 7,000 in all – believed to be involved in the drug business, it's no surprise that they are keen to see it continue unabated. The same Global Post article reports a failed attempt last summer by a special forces team to enter Lazarat, which resulted in a firefight that one unnamed local police commissioner described as "very much like a real war."
"We were drawing indiscriminate fire from 20 positions, including heavy machine guns and anti-tank missiles," the commissioner was quoted as saying. "I saw a 70-year-old grandmother shooting at us with a heavy machine gun. I thought I was going to die."
Unsurprisingly, the country's law enforcement agencies haven't been back. The country's shaky justice system also means that despite increased seizures, "cumbersome bureaucracy and weak judicial and law enforcement institutions resulted in few convictions," says the US State Department.
All this leave the new prime minister, Edi Rama, with another major headache to deal with. His Socialist Party-led government has vowed to step up Albania's efforts to join the EU, the country's top priority. After three years of failed attempts to gain candidate status, it will try again in December. Efforts to rein in the drugs trade will be a key part of that decision.
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