Albania's Offensive Against Europe's Main Marijuana Source

Recent efforts by Albanian authorities to fight the profitable marijuana trade in southern Albania may have brought early returns, but doubts remain over the government's ability to stamp out drug gangs that have become entrenched in the largely lawless region.

On June 16, hundreds of police raided the town of Lazarat in southern Albania in an effort to rid the largely self-governed area of illicit marijuana production and trafficking. Authorities were initially met with resistance from local armed groups who responded with gunfire and grenades, causing a temporary halt to the advance for fear of civilian casualties. The operation, which was ongoing as of early July, has so far led to the destruction of over 39 tonnes of marijuana and over 133,000 cannabis plants, while five drug-processing laboratories have been seized and 23 men arrested.

Lazarat's drug trade has grown exponentially over the past decade, giving the village the notoriety of being Europe’s main marijuana supplier. It is estimated that this small mountainous village produces about 900 tonnes of cannabis annually which are then smuggled throughout the continent. According to the Italian financial police, the illicit business is worth around $6 billion a year, accounting for one third of the Albanian economy.

The government has previously tried to stem the illicit cultivation of cannabis in Lazarat, but their efforts have always been unsuccessful due to the growing influence of local criminal organizations. With the 1997 rebellion in the country -- where Albania was pushed to the brink of civil war -- a climate of long-term political instability and general lawlessness was instilled in the region, allowing drug traffickers to thrive. Furthermore, these gangs have access to heavy arms -- during the 1997 riots, rebels and criminal gangs managed to get access to around 1 million weapons that were looted from abandoned military bases. In this turbulent context , police officers based in the south, either corrupted or simply powerless, have often turned a blind eye to the vast amount of land used to grow marijuana for fear of retaliation.

The recent inroads made in Lazarat are somewhat of a success when compared to past efforts and may be instrumental for the political future of the entire country. Albania is currently in the process of seeking membership within the European Union, becoming an official candidate for accession the week following the Lazarat offensive. The operation, therefore, is believed to be partly geared toward sending a clear message to Brussels.

Nonetheless, due to the economic influence that the cannabis trade has in the region,  the initial successes of the operation might be overshadowed by its consequences on the people of Lazarat. Far from being just a means for criminal organizations to gain power, the illicit business employs up to 90 percent of the village’s small population, in addition to several seasonal workers coming from other towns. Local families have for years found in the cultivation of cannabis the only source of income in a country that, being one of the poorest in the Europe, would otherwise offer few legal alternatives.

Due to the highly lucrative nature of the trade that gangs have built up, it is not something they will not easily relinquish. If the government continues to enforce a crackdown, it is probable that criminal organizations will simply look to uproot and shift production and trafficking networks to areas under less scrutiny. In addition, given the country's struggling economy, these groups would likely find people willing to engage in the process in order to earn, much like the people of Lazarat have done.

Therefore, the recent operation in Lazarat might be nothing more than a government’s attempt to influence the decision by EU authorities regarding Albania's membership. The efforts are laudable, but, as of now, they are only likely to prove detrimental to the local population, rather than Albania's cannabis trade as a whole.