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Cannabis in the Balkans: From Criminals to Capitalists?

Cannabis in the Balkans: From Criminals to Capitalists?
PHOTO West Midlands Police


Cannabis in the Balkans: From Criminals to Capitalists?

A contraband cannabis economy booms in the Balkan Peninsula, but amid EU pressure, a legal industry is now starting to emerge.

The Balkan Peninsula of Southeast Europe has an infamous reputation. The wars in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s and the armed uprising in Albania in 1997 led to a profusion of criminal gangs that traded in contraband to bloat the arsenals of local militias and paramilitary groups. Albania is especially notorious as Europe’s top producer of illicit-market cannabis, and the European Union has been demanding a crackdown.

In the latest eruption of sensationalism, Britain’s The Independent on Jan. 29 wrote that Albania is the “Colombia of Europe,” and went on to expound on “how tiny Albania became the continent’s drug trafficking headquarters.” The lurid “Colombia of Europe” line comes from an anonymous member of a joint Albanian-Italian coast guard patrol attempting to intercept the traffickers.

Reporter Borzou Daragahi makes clear that cannabis is key in this contraband economy. He writes: “[S]everal years ago, the Albanian authorities launched an aggressive eradication effort in the countryside of the small, poor Balkan state, hoping that destroying the cannabis fields and arresting some of the growers would decrease the power of the traffickers, rid the country of its pariah status and help ease its entry into the European Union.”

Cannabis remains a key contraband commodity in the region, as evidenced in a recent blow against the criminal networks claimed by Albanian authorities. At the same time, with recent investment from a Canadian firm, a Montenegran cannabis company is moving forward with growing massive amounts of legal cannabis in Macedonia, perhaps ushering in a new era for legal cannabis in the Balkans.

The ‘Balkan Escobar’… of Cannabis

On Jan. 15, Klement Balili, Albania’s top fugitive crime lord, handed himself in to the authorities. The local Tirana Times reports that the man dubbed the “Balkan Esobar” had been engaged in secret negotiations with the national police for a peaceful surrender to face trafficking charges. The case against him emerged from a 2016 joint operation by Greek authorities and the U.S. DEA, in which over 670 kilograms of cannabis was seized on the isle of Zakynthos. The investigation led back to Balili, as well as corrupt Albanian police agents who were protecting him.

Colombia’s late kingpin Pablo Escobar himself graduated from an empire of contraband cannabis in the ’70s to one of cocaine in the ’80s and ’90s. But it’s pretty clear that the Balkan drug lords have not advanced nearly so far along this trajectory. After years of eradication efforts, Albania is still producing plenty of cannabis, and it is still making its way up the Peninsula to European markets, across the Adriatic Sea to Italy, or down the coast to Greece, for further re-export.

In the latest of ongoing big seizures in the region, police in Bosnia and Herzegovina arrested three people and confiscated 240 kilograms of what local reports called “skunk” on Jan. 9. The bust took place at the town of Gacko, on Bosnia’s border with the fellow ex-Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. Authorities said there is a steady route used by traffickers from Albania through Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia.

A Burgeoning Legal Sector in the Balkans, With Help from Canada

A legal cannabis industry is beginning to emerge in the Balkans — although not in Albania, the heart of the contraband industry. ICC International Cannabis Corp, the Vancouver-based firm with global ambitions, (already operating in Colombia and in Lesotho), recently announced a deal to acquire all of the Balkan Cannabis Corp.

The Balkan Cannabis Corp, founded just last year by investors from Montenegro, already has large land holdings being prepared for cultivation in Macedonia, another ex-Yugoslav republic, as well as in Bulgaria. The deal was reported late last month by Proactive Investors, and confirmed as consummated last week by Bulgaria’s Sofia News Agency.

Through a Macedonia subsidiary, the Balkan Cannabis Corp has been granted a license to cultivate on 30 hectares (75 acres) in the town of Valandovo. The subsidiary controls a total of 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) with a two-year option to buy an additional 15,000 hectares. It also holds Macedonia’s only extraction license to date, according to Sofia News Agency. In a press release, ICC said it will produce “medical cannabis and hemp” products at the facility. It boasted that that anticipated output will make Balkan Cannabis Corp “the most dominant player in the region.”

Cannabis Still a Cover For Political Persecution

Even amid this progress toward normalization of cannabis in the Balkans, its generally illegal status and association with criminality still seem to come in handy when corrupt political elites wish to silence a troublesome voice. For example, on Jan. 16, the award-winning investigative reporter Jovo Martinovic was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison in Montenegro on charges of trafficking cannabis.

Martinovic, of course, asserts that he’s being framed. “Trafficking in marijuana would have made no sense to me. I just don’t have any motivation to do it, I have an international career,” he said at the last hearing in December.

The apparent frame-up is being protested by Reporters Without Borders and other international press-freedom advocacy groups.

“The jailing of an investigative journalist for his reporting on an important issue of public interest is a terrible injustice that will have chilling effects on press freedom in Montenegro,” asserted Gulnoza Said, Europe program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “We call on the authorities in Montenegro to not contest Jovo Martinovic’s appeal and right this wrong.”

The use of cannabis charges to squelch dissidence was also seen in the notorious case reported from Chechnya last year — another part of the post-communist world where wars in the 1990s have left a legacy of criminality and corruption. There, it was the republic’s most prominent human rights defender who was busted. Hopefully, the normalization of cannabis in the Balkans will soon come to undermine the stigma that lubricates such repression.

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