In 2014, a series of reports about Albania’s cannabis industry appeared in the international press. Until then, most people had no idea that Albania was such a large weed producer. Let’s take a look at what has been going on in Albania since then.
Cannabis Production in Albania
Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who ruled Albania from 1944 until 1954, banned cannabis cultivation in 1946. Before that, cannabis had been freely traded for recreational use and provided as a sedative for children. However, cannabis continued to be cultivated by the Institute of Agriculture at Kamez, near Tirana (the capital of Albania). It was high quality, and a limited amount was exported to a few places, such as Switzerland, for pharmaceutical and industrial use (Nabolli 2016).
In 1991, Albania switched suddenly from being an isolated, communist-controlled dictatorship to being a capitalist economy. Many people no longer had jobs in the state, and illegal cannabis production began increasing enormously, making the country one of the world’s largest producers, alongside Colombia, Jamaica, the Netherlands and Paraguay. Albania enjoys an average of 218 days of sunshine a year and an abundant water supply from mountain streams, providing an ideal environment for growing weed.
Albania’s Economic Situation
Albania is an impoverished European country with a population of around 2.8 million. In 2021, its GDP was around $16.7 billion, compared with $4,230 billion for Germany and $3,108 billion for the UK (Wikipedia 2022). In 2014, Albania’s GDP was around $13.23 billion. Albania’s infrastructure is severely under-developed, with relatively few tarmac roads.
There are limited opportunities for work in the country, which has a high level of unemployment, with every fifth member of the workforce being unemployed. In this environment, the cannabis industry flourished, providing employment for many people and the chance for entrepreneurs to make a lot of money.
The First Big Bust: Lazarat
In the south of Albania, 125 miles from Tirana and not far from the border with Greece, is Lazarat, a village with around 5,000 inhabitants in the Dropull valley. Over fifteen years, this village became the main centre of cannabis production in Albania, producing about half of Albania’s weed (Nabolli 2016).
In 2004, shots were fired from Lazarat at an Italian cannabis-spotting helicopter, which made a hasty retreat. It had become well known to the authorities that Lazarat had become a haven for weed farmers. In 2013, a newly-elected socialist government led by Edi Rama declared war on cannabis. This announcement came just a few days before the EU was due to consider Albania’s request to become an EU member, which would result in Albania receiving considerable EU funds.
In June 2014, after eight months of planning, Albania’s police conducted its largest-ever operation (Interpol 2014). Around 800 armed police, led by Albania’s chief of police, raided Lazarat. Annual weed production in Albania had reached 900 metric tonnes a year, worth around $5 billion, which was more than a third of the country’s GDP.
Thirty farmers, holed up in a farmhouse, attempted to repel the police with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and machine guns. Gunfire continued for three hours. Fortunately, no one was killed in the gunfight, though a police officer and two shepherds were wounded. Some of the farmers fled to the mountains, pursued by the police, who took control of the village. The crew of Albania’s TV channel A1 were robbed at gunpoint by masked men who burnt their vehicle (Guardian 2014).
Seizures in Lazarat
In the first five days of the operation, police seized twenty-three tonnes of cannabis, destroyed 130,000 cannabis plants, shut down four drug laboratories and confiscated a large quantity of firearms and ammunition, including grenade launchers, an anti-aircraft gun, heavy machine guns, explosives, grenades and hundreds of AK-47 automatic rifles. 130 houses were searched, and twenty-one people, including an alleged drug baron, were arrested for cultivating cannabis and firing weapons at the police (Interpol 2014; Likmeta 2014).
The Second Big Bust: Dukagjin
Three months after the Lazarat operation, another police raid was conducted in August in the rugged mountains in the north of Albania, in the Dukagjin highlands region, which has deep gorges and dense vegetation, making access difficult. The highest point in the region is Maja Jezerce, at 2,694 metres. Nearly 300 police officers, including interior ministry special forces units assisted by military helicopters, descended on this remote region. Farmers fired at the helicopters with automatic rifles. Over four days, 86,000 cannabis plants were destroyed. After this operation, Albania’s minister, Saimir Tahiri, posted on Facebook that since 1st June, the police had destroyed 344,000 cannabis plants in the country (Likmeta 2014).
In 2014, the police seized just over 100 tonnes of cannabis, slightly more than the total seizures for the previous nine years, and over 500,000 plants were destroyed. In 2015 800,000 plants were destroyed, while in the first nine months of 2016, that figure had risen to 2.1 million (Nabolli 2016). By the end of the year, 2.5 million plants in 5,200 fields had been destroyed. Cannabis cultivation had spread to many remote areas throughout the country (Arapi 2017).
Cannabis Farming Continues
Despite the large police operations to shut down cannabis production in Albania, farming in more remote areas, often in the wild rather than on someone’s property, nevertheless continued unabated. This was mainly due to corruption. Local police, who only earn around 350 euros a month, will typically take 10% of the cannabis harvest when the plants are mature. It is said in Albania that someone is only arrested if they have no friends in the police or in the state administration.
Donkeys laden with fifty to 100 kilos of cannabis cross the border to neighbouring Montenegro, but only after the police have been bribed, and their radar is turned the other way. The police typically take fifty euros per kilo. Weed is exported from Albania not only over its land borders, but also by ship and plane to other EU countries. Many tonnes of cannabis pass overland to Greece and Montenegro and through the Italian seaport of Bari.
Two years after the bust at Lazarat, only ten people had been jailed, and these were not the main operators. According to Albanian law, cannabis cultivation and transportation is punishable with up to fifteen years in jail. The EU has officially commented on several occasions that even though there have been police operations in Albania, the conviction rate is very low and little has been done to apprehend the main dealers or to tackle money laundering. Some Albanian mayors have convictions for drug trafficking in EU member states (Nabolli 2016).
Because of Albania’s poverty, it is very easy to employ local people to work in the cannabis industry. Even though workers earn only around ten euros a day (Arapi 2017), this is better than nothing. Cannabis workers are prepared to live and work in squalid conditions and risk arrest by the police to feed themselves.
Albanian Government Denials and the EU
In 2017, Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, declared that, owing to police operations, the cannabis industry was dying out in Albania. However, in the ‘Frontiers of Europe’ program, aired on 27th January 2020 on the Italian state TV channel Rai 3, it was stated that there had been an “exponential growth” of weed production in Albania, which had increased by 1200%. An unpublished police report showed pictures of 100,000 plants, which were said to have been grown from genetically modified, high-THC Vietnamese seeds.
Rama, was furious, claiming that the Italian report was entirely false. Spokespeople for opposition parties in Albania nevertheless maintained that the report was accurate. The prime minister was just trying to please the EU with his statements: Albania was still the “Colombia of Europe” as far as weed production is concerned (EU-OCS 2020). According to the 2021 UN World Drug Report, between 2015 and 2019, Albania was the world’s sixth-largest supplier of cannabis and the largest in Europe (DW 2021).
In another development after the Italian broadcast, Rama announced in May 2020, six years after the initial crackdown, that Albania would follow other countries and legalise the production of medical cannabis. Rama told the Albanian parliament that “Illegal cultivation is completely under control”. On hearing this announcement, the inhabitants of Lazarat demanded full amnesty for those previously convicted for cannabis offences or tax evasion. However, Albanian critics of Rama and also the EU remain sceptical that cannabis production is under control in Albania (Koleka 2020). EU accession talks remain stalled over Albania’s criminal activities, cannabis production, and a language dispute with neighbouring Bulgaria, which opposes Albania’s EU membership request (DW 2021).
Cannabis Business Outside Albania
Not only does the cannabis business appear to be still thriving in Albania, but Albanian gangs are also operating extensively throughout the EU, dealing not only cannabis but also cocaine. A new Special Anti-Corruption Structure (SPAK) was set up in Albania in 2019 to monitor these gangs. The establishment of this unit was a prerequisite for the EU before they would begin accession talks with Albania (DW 2021).
Reports of Albanian cannabis gangs continue to appear in the press throughout Europe. In December 2021, 1.5 tonnes of Albanian skunk was seized by police in the southwestern province of Mugla in Turkey. The weed had arrived by speedboat from Albania. In 2021 seizures of weed increased 42% in Turkey (Daily Sabah 2021).
In Spain, in July 2021, there were over 100 arrests at forty-two locations in a crackdown by combined law enforcement authorities from Spain, Germany and Albania on an Albanian clan running industrial cannabis operations at fifty-one farms throughout Spain (Europol 2021).
In June 2021, a gang of illegal immigrants from Albania were busted in Wales for cannabis farming. Four Albanians were arrested for seventy plants and 100 kg of weed. Other Albanian operations were also discovered in other places in Wales (Evans 2021).
In the UK, well organised Albanian cannabis cultivators, who can be violent, are now replacing Vietnamese gangs as the main growers. If arrested, the “gardeners” sometimes evade prosecution by claiming that they have been trafficked and are victims of slavery (Kruger 2022).
The reports cited above are just a few examples among many that have appeared in the European press in the last few years.
Cannabis Production in Albania in 2022
In January 2022, Albania’s Minister of Interior, Bledi Çuçi, announced that the “fight against cannabis” would be a priority for the government in 2022 and that whoever closes his eyes to cannabis cultivation will have his career destroyed. He also maintained that production had decreased in 2021 (Ceta 2022).
However, just a month later, in February, the Deputy General Director of the State Police, Albert Dervishaj, publicly stated that official police figures prove the opposite, that cultivation had increased in 2021.
In the mountainous Shkodra/Shkodër region (in the north of Albania, bordering Montenegro), where there is a lot of cultivation, 211 cannabis cases were prosecuted in 2021. This compares with 162 cases for the previous year. According to data obtained from cannabis-spotting flights over the Italian Guardia di Finanza region, there were 1100 plots of cannabis spread over thirty-seven hectares, the largest area under cultivation since 2016.
In Shkodra, the mayor of Puka, Gjon Gjonbaj, told the press that other mayors, the police and government officials are still cooperating with the traffickers. Although cannabis awareness campaigns have been running in Albania for twenty years, no one is usually arrested even when officials are aware of cultivation (Halili 2022).
Despite announcements by some Albanian government officials, it seems that cannabis continues to be cultivated and exported from Albania on a large scale. Would it not be sensible to avoid all the trouble and simply follow Switzerland, Germany, Holland and Luxembourg and simply legalise it?
- Arapi, Lindita (2017). DW. ‘Albania: Europe’s cannabis paradise’. 2nd January. https://www.dw.com/en/albania-europes-cannabis-paradise/a-36983338
- Ceta, Kristi (2022). ‘Fight Against Cannabis a Priority in 2022; Minister’. Albanian Daily News, 29th January. https://albaniandailynews.com/news/fight-against-cannabis-an-absolute-priority-in-2022-interior-minister-1-1
- Daily Sabah (2021). ‘Turkey intercepts 1.5-ton skunk cannabis shipment from Albania’. 7th December. https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/investigations/turkey-intercepts-15-ton-skunk-cannabis-shipment-from-albania
- DW (2021). ‘Graft, drug trafficking threaten Albania’s chance of joining EU’. 4th October. https://www.dw.com/en/graft-drug-trafficking-threaten-albanias-chances-of-joining-eu/a-59385534
- EU-OCS (2020). ‘Albanian PM rejects reports of 1200% growth in country’s cannabis production’. 6th February. https://eu-ocs.com/albanian-pm-rejects-reports-of-1200-growth-in-countrys-cannabis-production/
- Europol (2021). ‘Over 100 arrests in crackdown against Albanian clan running industrial cannabis operation in Spain’. 1st September. https://www.europol.europa.eu/media-press/newsroom/news/over-100-arrests-in-crackdown-against-albanian-clan-running-industrial-cannabis-operation-in-spain
- Evans, Jason (2021). ‘Albanian cannabis farm workers in fear of criminal gangs if sent home: The four Albanians were found with 70 cannabis plants and 100kg of the harvested drug’. WalesOnline, 25th June. https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/albanian-criminal-gang-100kg-cannabis-20897708
- Guardian (2014). ‘Grenades fired at Albanian police during cannabis crackdown’. 16th June. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/16/albania-police-lazarat-cannabis-marijuana-crackdown
- Guardian (2014). ‘Albanian cannabis growers and 800 police battle in lawless village of Lazarat’. 17th June. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/17/albanian-cannabis-growers-800-police-battle-lazarat
- Halili, Eduart (2022). ‘Cannabis Cultivation Increases in Albania; VOA’. Albanian Daily News, 17th February. https://albaniandailynews.com/news/cannabis-cultivation-increases-in-albania-voa
- Interpol (2014). ‘Tonnes of marijuana seized in largest ever Albanian police operation’. 20th June. https://www.interpol.int/fr/Actualites-et-evenements/Actualites/2014/Tonnes-of-marijuana-seized-in-largest-ever-Albanian-police-operation
- Koleka, Benet (2020). ‘Albania, once a haven of illicit cannabis, set to legalise crop for medical use’. Reuters, 12th May. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-albania-cannabis-medical-idUSKBN22O2XR
- Kruger, Anna (2022). ‘Albanian Gang Corner Market at Cannabis Farm’. News Today, 27th February. https://news.crast.net/albanian-gang-corner-market-at-cannabis-farm/
- Likmeta, Besar (2014). ‘Albanian Police Stage Major Anti-Drug Crackdown’. BalkanInsight, 25th August. https://balkaninsight.com/2014/08/25/albania-police-in-fresh-anti-drug-operation/
- Nabolli, Elvis (2016). ‘An Albanian War on Drugs’. BalkanInsight, 16th November. https://balkaninsight.com/2016/11/16/an-albanian-war-on-drugs-11-15-2016/
- Wikipedia (2022). ‘List of sovereign states in Europe by GDP (nominal)’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sovereign_states_in_Europe_by_GDP_(nominal)