, TIRANA, Jun 21 – As Albania gears up for elections, one huge challenge facing the Balkan country has been low on the campaign agendas: the scourge of its cannabis fields, which threatens to hinder EU accession.
Morocco may be the leading source of cannabis resin, but mountainous Albania is the main supplier of herbal cannabis trafficked to the European Union, says the bloc’s law enforcement agency, Europol.
Despite Albania’s attempts to crack down on the illicit but lucrative trade, recent international reports said the scourge is yet to be brought under control — and that the criminal gangs behind it are escaping justice.
Until a month ago, Albania’s main opposition Democratic Party was threatening to boycott Sunday’s election. It accused Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama of colluding with cannabis traffickers and using their profits to manipulate the vote.
But the two sides struck a deal in mid-May, in which the Democrats were granted key ministerial positions in the run-up the polls. Since then, the cannabis question has been quietly dropped by both sides.
“They agreed a ceasefire, but the most uncertain are the poor people who do not know how they are going to ensure their survival,” said Petrit, a small-scale farmer in northern Albania, echoing the desperation of many who cultivate the crop.
On a visit to see family in the capital Tirana, 35-year-old Petrit — who did not want to give his full name — said it was smaller producers who were being punished by the crackdown.
“No big boss is behind bars,” he told AFP, adding that he was preparing to emigrate to Greece to find other work to feed his six children.
– Crackdown –
The market value of the drug from Albania’s southern town of Lazarat — dubbed the “kingdom of cannabis” — was alone estimated at an annual 4.5 billion euros ($5 billion) in a 2013 Italian police report.
But most of the profits are generated abroad and fail to benefit national coffers in the impoverished country of 2.9 million people.
After a crackdown was launched on Lazarat in 2014, criminal groups spread their cultivation and trafficking operations to other parts of Albania, said Rovena Voda, deputy interior minister and head of the anti-cannabis task force.
Under international pressure, Albanian police have since January seized nearly 40 tonnes of dried cannabis and destroyed more than 2.5 million plants, which are often grown in hard-to-access rocky terrain.
Police have arrested nearly 400 people in the crackdown since November, and 71 police officials have been either charged or dismissed for corruption.
International police also say that, since January, at least 20 tonnes of Albanian cannabis have been seized in neighbouring Italy — and another 10 tonnes in Greece.
These amounts “far from represent the country’s true production levels or the quantity transported, in particular to Greece and Italy,” said one Western diplomat in Tirana on condition of anonymity.
In its latest progress report on Albania in November, the EU acknowledged that the authorities had made progress destroying marijuana fields. But the criminal gangs behind cultivation and trafficking remain at large, the report added.
“Efficient judicial follow-up in criminal proceedings is seldom secured,” it noted.
– Pledges to eradicate –
Political parties’ plans to encourage alternative sources of income, such as saffron and sage production, green tourism and organic farming, have yet to make a significant impact.
The cannabis culture, “mastered by international criminal networks, has become a real economy for many poor families,” said Fabian Zhilla, a security analyst.
A US State Department report on narcotics in March noted “reports of increased cannabis cultivation” within Albania in 2016, despite the rise in arrests and plantations destroyed.
Rama, premier since 2013, has promised to “eradicate the phenomenon once and for all”. In April, he launched a nationwide action plan.
But the fight against cannabis goes hand in hand with the efforts to tackle corruption and reform of the judiciary — another essential step in Albania’s EU accession process.
“There are cases of money laundering which have been denounced by the police but suspended by the prosecutor’s office,” admitted Voda.
Colonel Giovanni Conti, with Italy’s financial police, said in mid-June that his teams had not spotted any Albanian cannabis plantations in 23 recent aerial checks.
But analysts have pointed out that given the plant’s growth cycle, the picture would not be clearer until July.
“I think Albania will be no more… on the black map of countries that cultivate cannabis,” Voda said.