Europe’s (unannounced) outdoor cannabis capital

Europe’s (unannounced) outdoor cannabis capital

Albania has become the largest producer of outdoor-grown cannabis in Europe. The potent plant has been described as “green gold” for struggling farmers. In a poor nation, it’s a billion-euro industry.

Off a dirt road, in a small village north of Tirana, there’s a half-built, tumble-down, brick house. It stands alone and looks abandoned. It isn’t. The sweet, heady odour that seeps from one of the rooms reveals its current function: cannabis production. Inside, more than half the floor space is covered with buds of the drying drug.

“There’s about 20kg here,” says the man who owns it. He is young – late 20s maybe – dressed in skinny jeans, a tight top and trainers. And he is one of thousands making money from the cannabis boom.

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In Albania, a kilo of this illegal drug sells for between 100 and 200 euros (£85 to £170). In Italy it will fetch about 1,500 euros. And most of the country’s cannabis crop is trafficked out – north through Montenegro, south to Greece, or west across the Adriatic to Italy. There is no significant home market. One source estimates the illicit industry may be worth five billion euros (£4.25bn) per year – about half of Albania’s GDP.

The 20kg of stinking greenery slowly drying in the sunlight that streams through an open window does not represent this man’s entire crop.

“I’ve produced 350kg,” he says. “This year almost every single house in the village grew cannabis – tons and tons have been produced in this community alone.”

This man employs 15 people to pick and process, and armed guards to defend his crop. He says he is in charge here, but he probably belongs to a wider network. So if everyone is growing it, and that seems to be common knowledge, why has there been no police raid?

“I pay the police 20%. Everybody has to pay. If you don’t pay they will take you to jail,” he says.

Then, he gets defensive.

“This is our curse – there are no jobs, no work here. There’s no money in growing anything else. I know it’s not a good thing I’m doing, but there’s no other way.”

Police store room, with bags of cannabis

For decades Albanians lived under a punishing, closed regime. Then, after communism fell, came a period marked by civil unrest and the rapid growth of organised crime. Twenty-five years later, unemployment is still high and corruption rife – conditions that enable the cannabis trade to flourish.

The government has had some success in its fight against the illegal industry.

It says more than two million cannabis plants have been destroyed this year, and now that the growing season is over, police are concentrating on confiscating the drug as it is prepared for trafficking out of Albania.

Some of the hauls have been huge.

In a vast warehouse in the town of Rreshen, tucked into the foothills of the mountains north of Tirana, tier after tier of drying cannabis is laid out on mesh shelves. On the concrete floor, there are more waist-high mounds of the drug. Sacks of it lie around, and it spills out of the open back doors of a transit van.

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Cannabis carelessly loaded into van

In the middle of this sea of weed – his woolly hat pulled low, his glasses on the end of his nose, and a gun at his hip – is the police officer in charge, Agron Cullhaj, who describes it as the largest ever find in this area.

In this one location there are more than four tonnes of cannabis, with a street value in Italy of some six million euros (£5m).

“When I took office in 2013, I started to plan huge action against the illegal cultivation of cannabis,” says the Home Minister, Saimir Tahiri.

In their mission to rid Albania of the cannabis scourge, the government has the support of the Italians. The Guardia di Finanza pays for aerial surveillance to identify plantations, and it is their statistics that Albanian politicians quote.

“From 2013 to 2016, the figures show more than a 30% decrease in the area of Albania cultivated with cannabis. That means we’re on the right path,” says Tahiri.

The 30% decrease came about largely because a mammoth police operation in 2014 destroyed the well-entrenched cannabis industry in Lazarat, a southern village once notorious as the drug capital of Europe. In the raid – employing firepower, special forces and armoured vehicles – many tonnes of cannabis were seized and thousands of plants destroyed.

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But if you compare the Italians’ figures for 2015 and 2016, they reveal a five-fold increase in the area cultivated with cannabis. Sources within Albania suggest many communities have turned to drug production for the first time this year.

Corruption is critical to the success of this illicit business – something the Home Minister recognises.

“For sure police have been corrupted,” he says. “Since my first day in office, more than 3,000 police officers are under criminal or disciplinary investigations. That’s nearly 20% of the whole troop.”

Not all of those officers have been fingered over cannabis, though. Corruption in Albania bleeds into so many cracks of everyday life.

BBC EUROPE

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