Cannabis is illegal in Albania, and all cannabis-related activities, including possession, cultivation, transport, and sales, are prohibited. However, despite its illegal status, cannabis is still widely cultivated here. In fact, Albania is a major marijuana-growing country and has even risen up the ranks to become known as Europe’s largest outdoor producer of cannabis.
Despite Albania’s anti-cannabis laws, police enforcement is very lacking. Police officers do not seek cannabis smokers and small bribes can set caught offenders free.
The possession of a small quantity of cannabis for personal use is not punishable. However, for more serious offenses, the penalties can be severe. The sale, distribution, possession, and production of cannabis – in amounts the court deems too large to be for personal use – could land offenders between five and ten years in jail. For trafficking, offenders can spend seven to 15 years in prison, or even more if a link to organized crime is established.
In the last few years, the police has intensified its efforts in seizing cannabis and arresting offenders. In 2012, authorities seized 21.2 metric tons of cannabis, which is almost twice the amount they seized in 2011. Meanwhile, in 2016, police identified 5,204 fields and destroyed more than two million cannabis plants. Now, the police are concentrating on confiscating cannabis as it is prepared to be transported outside of Albania.
Although seizures have increased in the past few years, Albania has an inefficient judicial system, which means that only a few arrests made by the police had resulted in convictions.
Cannabis cultivation and trafficking in Albania
The cultivation of cannabis was initially concentrated in Albania’s mountainous southern region, which comprises rugged terrain that makes it difficult for the Albanian State Police (ASP) to patrol effectively. In addition, the region’s Mediterranean climate is also conducive for growing cannabis.
Throughout the years, the cannabis plant has achieved great importance in the Albanian rural economy. And because production was way more than sufficient to meet domestic demand, there was also enough to export to other countries.
By the mid-2000s, majority of the cannabis used in Italy came from Albania. Also, a huge chunk of the cannabis travelling from Albania to Western Europe was smuggled through the Italian mafia, which has strong links to the country’s organized criminal networks. The Italian financial police estimates that Albania produces a total of around 900 tons of cannabis worth €4.5 billion annually.
What happened in Lazarat
For many years that followed, Albania outranked all other countries in Europe in terms of cannabis production, but it had remained relatively unknown in the global scene. However, in 2013, Albania was put on the cannabis world map and made global headlines when police forces tried to shut down operations in Lazarat, which is where most of Albanian cannabis was grown. It is said that this small mountain village in the southern region produces up to 500 tons of cannabis annually, thanks to over 60 acres of very fertile hillside that is ideal for growing the plants. Moreover, 90% of the people in Lazarat are involved in cannabis trade in one way or another.
The ASP entered Lazarat a few days before the EU was going to decide on the country’s status as an accession candidate. As an aspiring EU member, Albania needed to convince other member states that it has a decisive and cohesive national drug strategy. However, the villagers mounted a three-day armed resistance against the ASP, putting the police force in a difficult predicament. Instead of facing an all-out war, the ASP decided to just leave Lazarat to go on with its multi-billion dollar operation.
As a result of the Lazarat incident, cannabis cultivation and trade spread out.