Things have moved fast this month in U.S. relations with Albania, Europe’s poorest nation, and cannabis is at the center of the flurry.
At the start of April, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics & Law Enforcement Affairs issued its annual report with harsh words for Albania. The report stated: “Albania is both a source country of cannabis and, increasingly, a transit country for cocaine and heroin commanded largely by organized crime elements moving illicit drugs from source countries into European markets.”
Even while luridly warning that Albania is emerging as a trafficking hub for deadly white powders, the report admitted that “Albania’s role as source or market for illicit drugs beyond cannabis is minor.” What is centrally at issue here is cannabis. “Efforts to eradicate and prosecute cannabis growers have been extensive but uneven,” the report complained.
Stern Warnings from Abroad
The report acknowledged that “the volume of drug seizures and number of drug-related arrests in 2018 was significant, driven largely by Albanian law enforcement cooperation with international partners, increased international pressure and Albania’s efforts to accede to the European Union.”
However, this summation was followed up with an unsubtle lecture: “Albania’s institutions are moderately equipped to fight drug crimes, but corruption at every level of government limits their overall effectiveness. Official corruption is pervasive and fosters an environment in which drug traffickers are largely able to operate with impunity.”
Though the report did note the social roots of Albania’s endemic narco-economy (“a high rate of unemployment and weak rule of law”), it only called for “justice reform” and efforts to “erode the influence of organized crime” as solutions. It declined to address the endemic unemployment that has plagued the country since the end of communist rule more than a generation ago. Cannabis has filled the economic vacuum left by the communist collapse, which does not bode well for eradication efforts.
The European Union is also making it clear that it has had enough. The first week of April saw coordinated police raids across five European countries against what was said to be a single network of Albanian traffickers, based around “clans” from the south of the country. A total of 67 arrests were made, most of them in Belgium — where 8,000 cannabis plants were reported seized.
“This investigation targeted an Albanian criminal organization involved in multiple crimes, including the large-scale traffic in cannabis, cocaine, prostitution, human trafficking and money laundering,” a spokesperson for the Belgian federal prosecutor’s office stated. The report seemed to indicate that the Albanian network had established grow operations within Belgium. Arrests were also reported in the Netherlands, Italy, France and the United Kingdom.
After the raids, the Dutch Justice Minister read the riot act to Albania, lecturing, “Criminal groups with a link to Albania play a big role in organized crime in the Netherlands.”
There is a grim sense of deja vu to all this. Under pressure from D.C. and the European Union, Prime Minister Edi Rama has pledged a new campaign against corruption, trafficking and cannabis cultivation. Albania launches such renewed efforts regularly — yet remains Europe’s top producer of illicit cannabis.
Corruption, Crackdown, Unrest
The crackdown in 2014 started to look like a real war. In June of that year, hundreds of troops backed up by armored vehicles were sent into the village of Lazarat, known as Albania’s “Marijuana Mountain.” The local growers resisted with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, leaving casualties on both sides. When the village was finally subdued, authorities reported that 102 tons of harvested cannabis and 530,000 plants had been destroyed.
A year later, hundreds of troops, this time backed up by two army helicopters, returned to Lazarat in what seems to have been a mopping-up operation against the armed growers. The raid was supposedly sparked by a deadly attack on a solider patrolling the area.
In 2015, the government announced that Albania was now “marijuana-free” following the aggressive eradication campaign. But that really seems to have meant that big, open plantations like those in Lazarat had been cleared out. Cultivation was now spread out in small, clandestine plots — and Albania retained its spot on top of the continent’s illicit cannabis market.
Aid — Or Enabling?
On April 22, Albania’s Defense Ministry announced that the United States had provided three Black Hawk helicopters to the nation’s military. Defense Minister Olta Xhacka signed the deal while visiting a New Jersey National Guard base. The choppers are part of a U.S. support package for Albania, which joined NATO in 2009 and has been upgrading its military equipment to bring it into conformity with alliance standards. But there is little doubt the choppers are intended for cannabis enforcement.
A renewed eradication campaign may be tempting further violent confrontations, especially as Albania already shows signs of mounting social discontent. And there is the possibility, seen in so many places around the world, that military hardware supplied to fight the narco trade could be used in political repression.
Since December, Albania has seen a mounting wave of protests by students and the political opposition, demanding early elections amid discontent over official corruption. These climaxed last month, when protesters repeatedly attempted to storm the parliament building in the capital Tirana, and were dispersed by riot police with tear-gas and water-cannons.
TELL US, why do you think the United States would intervene in the illicit cannabis market overseas?