The Cannabis Capital of the World

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 06:45 p.m. DST, 24 June 2014

Marijuana Bud, Photo by Smokers High Life

LAZARAT, Albania -- This past week, the Albanian government waged a war against the large-scale cultivation of marijuana in the small town of Lazarat, which is 140 miles south of the Albanian capital. Lazarat has been called the 'cannabis capital' of Europe, and it comes by this title honestly. International officials estimate that the small village alone produces 900 metric tons of cannabis each year, which brings in over $6 billion annually.

The offensive began last Monday, 16 June, as Albanian special forces donned Kevlar vests and stormed the village in army vehicles designed to withstand automatic weapons and shelling attacks. Their protective gear proved important, as cartel-style gangs defended drug warehouses and weapons caches. The firefight lasted days, and on Wednesday, 18 June, police and rebels reached a ceasefire agreement.

In 1990 and 1997, the Albanian government was overhauled in order to address widespread corruption and centralized wealth. The new socialist administration has sought to join the European Union multiple times in recent years, but their intentions have not translated to EU membership for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Albanian admission is the cannabis industry.

For nearly two decades, Lazarat has made Albania the 'cannabis capital' of the European bloc, as their marijuana yield is distributed through nearby Italy and further westward. Armed with weapons seized during the 1990 and 1997 revolutions, gangs in Lazarat were omnipotent until last Wednesday. Similar problems may persist in other rural areas of Albania, but certainly not to the same extent as Lazarat.

While opposition to Albania's inclusion in the EU is centered around the production of marijuana, many Albanians see the industry as useful and profitable. Most in Albania would agree, however, that the gangs in Lazarat and other townships gain tremendous revenue through the distribution of marijuana, and these organized crime vehicles present a threat to residents of Lazarat and nearby locales.

The defensive volley of ammunition and explosives that were discharged from gang controlled safe houses is best explained by what is at stake in the standoff. The $6 billion industry in Lazarat alone totals half of the entire country's Gross Domestic Product. It is astounding that such a small village, located in a relatively small nation, could feed so much of the European marijuana market on its own.

More than marijuana, this move by officials in Tirana signals the eradication of small gang militias, which in a sense own and operate the small village of Lazarat. Those in charge in Tirana believe that the people of Lazarat will be better off without the coalition of gangs running the township, but that will remain to be seen. In the meantime, Albania is one step closer to association with the European Union.

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