Albania: In Europe’s Wild East Cannabis is a Billion-Dollar Business | Marijuana

Albania: In Europe’s Wild East Cannabis is a Billion-Dollar Business


In 2014, Albania was the focus of international media reports stating the small country to be the largest producer of illegal cannabis in Europe. At that time, special police forces had entered the mountain village of Lazarat to start a three-day battle with local cannabis farmers. When the Albanian police units began to capture the city on the early morning of June 16, 2014, they were armed with machine guns, armored fists, and hand-grenades. After the bust of the Minister of the Interior, Saimir Tahari promised to do everything possible to eradicate cannabis cultivation in Lazarat. However, the forbidden plant still remains the most important economic factor of the otherwise impoverished region; the area around the 7,000 inhabitants mountain village has since been controlled by police and army units.

Although there are only numbers of detected plantations available, the cultivation in the inaccessible mountain region close to the Greek border has clearly grown since 2014. Last year, Albanian anti-drug units claimed the eradication of 2.3 million cannabis plants in 1,250 operations and recorded 250 suspects. The alleged market value of 3.5 billion euros is about half of the entire Albanian national budget.

For years, Albanian politicians have blamed each other for profiting from the cannabis trade, and therefore, either tolerate it in secrecy or support it in public.

On Monday, the Albanian government announced the dismissal of Minister Tahiri with immediate effect. The Minister of the Interior, who was responsible for the military-style operation back in 2014, had been hit by the headlines. Tahiri was suspected of profiting from the expansion of Lazar’s cultivation to the entire region and of cooperating with the illegal industry by erasing criminal records. The former chief of the Police Drug Forces, Dritan Zagani, was arrested in 2015 under the threat of corruption and claimed that Tahiri is part of a secret network. Zagani meanwhile fled from Albania to Switzerland and asked for political asylum. In a current video, Tahiri contests all allegations so far.

Italy and Greece are the biggest markets

Most of the crop is smuggled into the neighboring countries. Anyone who purchases cannabis on the black market in Greece or Italy usually buys Albanian flowers. In previous decades, Greek youngsters hauled sacks full of cannabis across the mountains to Greece. Today, the bulk of the Albanian harvest is transported by boats across the Adriatic coast to the neighboring countries of Italy and Greece. From there, it can be transported to any country in the Schengen zone. For many years Italian tax investigators suspect the Mafia to be responsible for the transport, logistics and resale.

The annual cannabis production in Lazarat for 2013 was estimated at 900 tons with a total value of 4.5 billion euro by the Italian Airforce. “Lazarat annually produces 900 tons of marijuana, mainly of Dutch varieties, which brings profit of 4.5 billion of euros,” Denovive Stefano Bostoni, Chief of the Italian Air Force Units in Tirana stated towards Albanian media. Besides Lazarat he mentions four other important, cannabis cultivating regions (Valona, Shkodra, Tirana and Durres) rarely mentioned anywhere else.

The UNODC is operating an office in Albania’s capital Tirana, but never published concrete figures on the estimated quantity of cannabis produced in the country. However, observers confirm that cultivation has increased as a result of its shift to inaccessible mountain regions. In principle, with few exceptions, the entire country is an inaccessible mountain region with perfect Mediterranean climate for cannabis cultivation. This is confirmed by the helicopter operations the police have used on the search for cannabis fields throughout the South since 2015.

Cannabis in Albania

Cannabis is illegal in Albania, but the “possession of a daily dose” of illegal substances, including cannabis, is not punished. For cultivation and trade, the law provides 5 to 15 years of imprisonment. Five grams of cannabis costs between four and eight dollars on the black market, but the quality and active ingredient contents are not particularly high.

The permanent socioeconomic instability after the end of the communist era has led to the fact that the cannabis plant has become the most important source of income for Albanian agriculture. After the Second World War, the communists deported unloved families to Lazarat, and the village developed a regime-critical attitude toward the government in Tirana which continues to this day. In Lazarat, more than 90% of the population have been at least temporarily involved in the cannabis business.

After heavy criticism from the UN and the EU, the first attempts by the Albanian government to stop cannabis cultivation in the region were launched in the early 2000s. After several clashes with the police, Lazarat’s only police detachment was destroyed by the unruly peasants in 2004; the police tolerated their activities for another ten years.

Nowadays, the presence of the police and military is perceived more as an act of occupation than protection for the inhabitants. The government has generally tolerated the cultivation and associated economic boom of the village and its surroundings area since the mid-1990s. The area around Lazarat is the only rural region in Albania that does not suffer from a population shift to the cities.

Mexico and Morocco have been demonstrating for decades that cannabis cultivation can not be eradicated with special units and helicopters or other repressive measures when the illicit substance is the economic basis of entire regions and countries. The only way to deal with cannabis cultivation and its criminal infrastructure, including actors in Albania, Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Panama or Mexico, is an international regulation. Until that time comes, cannabis will continue to be cultivated in the Moroccan Rif, the Lebanese Bekaa Plain, South of Albania, Oaxaca, and beyond, where the profits disappear in dark channels instead of generating taxes.

Cover Image Courtesy of Allie Beckett

About Author

Michael Knodt is an expert on cannabis politics and cannabis culture across Europe. Born in North Germany, Michael has been living in Berlin since 1990. He initially studied history and journalism before receiving his certification as a carpenter. Since then, Michael has made regular visits to countries where cannabis is cultivated, such as Jamaica and Morocco. He has worked as a freelancer for Weedmaps, Vice Magazine Germany, Sensi Seeds and numerous German-language cannabis magazines since 2004. From 2005 to 2013, Michael was the Editor-in-Chief of Germanys biggest cannabis periodical. He also is the face and presenter of the most popular program on cannabis prohibition and just launched a new channel called "DerMicha." Aside from his journalistic work, Michael is a cannabis patient, activist, sought-after speaker on conferences and congresses, and a father of two.


  1. No one cultivates anything in lazarat anymore. The whole country except lazarat was growing last year. Weed is not the main source of income as you make it sound in this article. Plus I
    Tend to get offended when you say impoverished. We not that poor. I admit we not as rich as some but we are ok. Should visit and check it
    Out before you write bullshit uninformed articles.

    • What do they write nonsense! 400% more has been produced since 2014, everywhere criminal, hotels on the coast and partners are: Ilir Meta, Arben Ahmeti, Edmond Panariti, Edi Rama with the “Pablo Escobar of the Balkans”: Klement Balili and other drug barons

      • Michael Knodt on

        Hi Salah,
        thank you for your comment. May I ask you where the article states that it decreased as you say it does? I do not find it. It states, as you also say, that cultivation increased.
        May I ask you for a reliable source for the 400%? Thank you very much, i will add it if it s prove.
        Please be careful accusing people of crimes in public. If you have reliable background information feel free to contact me so i may do more research. If facts are prove, I write about it. If not, accusing people of crimes is also one, at least in my country. Thank you very much.

    • Michael Knodt on

      Dear Al
      thank you for your comment.
      – The town is mentioned in the article, but the article does not say it is still cultivated there. The basic information is that “cultivation has increased as a result of its shift”. Just as you say “everywhere”.
      Sorry you feel offended by the word “impoverished”. I think it is clear it is not about poor minded people or sth like this, but about the economic situation. The GDP of the region is nothing to discuss, it is a fact. Think of the following: If it is a shame to have bad economic resources and not discussed in public, nothing will change. So once again: Sorry if you feel insulted, it was meant to inform about the economic potential YOU have with cannabis – if you regulate. Then I can soon write about a prospering region..i bet. But as long as police and gangsters control it the majority will stay poor.

  2. Great story, Mr. Knodt. The topic of international regulation is quite that of a curious one. Do you think that the collective vast interest of available just politicians/voters/interests/and moral present internationally, could possibly outweigh that of the collective “necessities” of ruthless individuals and street dogs in regards to crime/money/personal wealth/ and means of stability and existence? I’m not sure that I know the answer to that, however, it could potentially make for a great piece/book. I think it would be worthy if one could contrast happenings around the globe in conjunction with history, while reflecting the steps taken to ameliorate the problem, and a comparison of what the big picture still entails? (ie. Colorado vs the existence Mexican drug problem/crime). It seems to me that when the human animal finds an illegal way of producing money, they have in turn produced a cancerous cell in society – where regulations and chemotherapy, are a waste of effort, and almost an empty promise. As an Albanian, I have always wondered why the EU/USA doesn’t dictate/mandate/monitor a law reform in regards to drugs/killings to where a list could be maintained and constantly filtered through a server monitored by outsiders? One could sell and kill their way to a means, and be out in just a few years. Consequences must dictate the choices that one makes. In turn, that is exactly what seems to happen. The problem is associated with “judges,” when there are said to be great laws. However, I beg to differ that the problem of 21st drugs is so widespread, that we all have a part in it. From the culture of impulsivity that we have bred around the world, to the coating of negativity and bitterness that follow most us all like an umbrella in a seemingly everlasting rain. A cultural reform reflecting on values is most likely best yet most unattainable solution. Do forgive any overgeneralization that i might have made. I have read your work before and would like to applaud you for your concise truth in perspective. Keep up the great work.

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