“It’s desperation that has led me to grow cannabis,” – farmer
KRUJA, Albania: Small mountainous Albania was for decades Europe’s most isolated country, but now 26 years after toppling communism it has emerged with the unwaanted distinction of being the continent’s top marijuana producer.
In the north-central mountains of Kruja, Ilir is one of Albania’s many poor farmers who have turned to growing the illegal crop.
“I am not committing a crime, it’s desperation that has led me to grow cannabis,” he says..
“I barely survive,” adds the 50-year-old, trying to defend his switch to a cannabis grower after he returned from Greece, where he had emigrated, as the economic crisis there forced him to go back home.
In the lucrative European market, the money for marijuana is attractive. Two kilogram of weed sell for 600 euros ($670) — the price of roughly one ton of wheat.
Albania has also become a major transit route for South American cocaine as well as Afghan heroin bound for Europe, adding to the international pressure on the government in Tirana, which wants to join the European Union, to track down and destroy the cannabis fields dotting the remote countryside.
Located on the Adriatic coast Albania has ideal climatic and geographical conditions for the contraband trade.
Police find its rocky mountainous terrain, where the cannabis is grown, difficult to access. And its coastline is less than 100 kilometers away from Italy and the doorway to the rest of Western Europe.
Criminal gangs control the business, which is fuelled a Western diplomat agrees by the “desperation of farmers”.
Ilir planted his first crop a little less than a year ago alongside a stream in a rocky patch behind his house. It is difficult to spot even from Italian military police helicopters surveying the area in a bid to help Albanian authorities in their crackdown on the growers.
“Since January, the police have carried out more than 1,250 operations… (and) destroyed more than 2.3 million cannabis plants,” says Altin Qato, the head of public security.
More than 250 people have been arrested and a hunt is on for about 100 others. Some 8,900 police officers have been mobilized and more than nine tons of cannabis seized.
In the face of this offensive marijuana growers are retreating to land “that is difficult to access,” Qato adds.
They are also increasingly planting a genetically modified Dutch variety with a short flowering cycle, which gives it several harvests.
Once the police have tracked down the plots, they have to walk for hours through steep terrain to reach them. They are often guided by telltale signs in the thorny terrain like watering pipes to reach the target.
At a field near Kruja there were signs of a hasty retreat by a grower: a bottle of water, some bread and a bit of cheese.
This land “does not belong to anyone on paper,” the head of a 10-man police team searching the area told AFP.
They will gather and burn the plants and a probe will aim to determine the culprit, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The pickings for drug traffickers however are several times that of the 2,000 to 5,000 leks (15 to 35 euros) earned daily by growers. Sold for between 200 and 300 euros per kilo in Albania, cannabis fetches 10 times that price in Greece and Italy.
In 2014, Albanian police started a clean up in the southern town of Lazarat, dubbed the “kingdom of cannabis”
According to an Italian report, each year it produces 900 tons of cannabis with a market value of 4.5 billion euros which is a third of Albania’s gross domestic product.
The trade also involves corrupt policemen. About 20 have been charged so far and politicians across the spectrum accuse each other of having links with the traffickers.
The right wing blames the current socialist government of turning Albania into the “Colombia of Europe.”
Prime Minister Edi Rama retorts that when the right was in power it never tackled the problem at Lazarat.
The US ambassador to Albania Donald Lu said recently “there are politicians who have benefited from their connections with drug traffickers.
“We know there are several members of parliament, there are mayors in Albania and there were candidates for the position of mayors who had convictions for drug trafficking in EU member states,” he said.
But Lu also applauded efforts to clean things up and there are signs of change. In its annual report in June, Italy’s drug-fighting agency reported a drop in cannabis seizures.
“We are determined to scratch Albania off the map charting the trafficking of drugs to Europe,” the country’s deputy interior minister Stefan Cipa told AFP.