Conventional wisdom and U.S. law enforcement agents agree: Most cannabis smoked in America comes from California. There, the traditional home of marijuana cultivation is the rural, forested counties north of San Francisco known as the “Emerald Triangle.”
Europe also has an Emerald Triangle—the impoverished rural hinterlands of Albania, a small, mountainous country of 3.2 million people, less than half the population of the San Francisco Bay Area—in the Balkans, in Eastern Europe.
The BBC recently dubbed Albania “Europe’s outdoor cannabis capital”—and with good reason.The country’s cannabis industry, all of it black market, could be worth as much as 5 billion euro a year, according to one source cited by the BBC.
This means marijuana is good for half of the country’s GDP—and, for many farmers faced with the choice of scratching out a meager living or participating in the illicit drug trade, all of their income.
Both “Mira” and “Rita,” two women from a rural Albanian town, were unemployed before they landed jobs working at an illegal marijuana farm, according to interviews with German broadcast news outfit Deutsche Welle.
They didn’t have much other choice: Rita had a husband in jail and a young child to support, and neither of them were able to find other work in an area where government benefits run to no more than 75 euro a month.
They were able to make 10 euros a day at the marijuana farm, a former chicken farm converted to producing as much as 4.2 tons of cannabis, DW reported. Meanwhile, a single kilo of marijuana, like the ones they helped produce, sells for 1,500 euros in Italy or elsewhere in Europe, which is where all of the cannabis in Albania goes.
How did marijuana get such a hold on this country?
Albania has struggled to adjust in the 25 years since its communist regime was replaced by a government that was supposedly going to be more open. Instead, organized crime and corruption have flourished, two ideal conditions for the spread of the drug trade.
This year was absolutely the “worst” yet for Albanian police trying to get a handle on the problem. A record 2.5 million plants were seized at more than 5,200 farms, DW.com reported.
But this is nothing like the Emerald Triangle in California, where some multi-generational artisanal cannabis producers claim marijuana’s provided them a middle-class existence. Here, the profits go to “drug lords,” and the police—who also earn more than the peasants like Rita and Mira—get their cut, bribe money to stand aside.
One cannabis farmer who spoke to the BBC said he pays the police 20 percent of what he makes. He’s not proud—but, he says in his own defense, the country’s brutal economics mean he has no other choice.
“Thousands of Albanians have no alternative because social and economic measures to help rural regions are lacking,” Lulzim Basha, the leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Albania, told DW.com. “People are faced with the choice to either have no bread for their children or to work on cannabis farms. Many have chosen the second option.”
Basha points to Albania’s booming cannabis economy as proof of the current government’s failings. Then again, if the rest of Europe wants to smoke marijuana—and it does—the drugs have to come from somewhere. And if marijuana is illegal in those countries—and it is—it’s going to come from black market sources.
No economic opportunity, a drug-reliant economy taking hold, police complicit and the government unable or unwilling to help—it’s hard not to hear this and immediately think of impoverished, rural areas of Mexico, where drug cartels are either the only available work, or the only readily available option.
For their part, Albanian journalists and officials disagree; they think that their country is merely “Europe’s Colombia,” preferring a comparison to the place where much of the world’s cocaine originates.
As for Mira and Rita?
Their farm was raided, the operators possibly hauled off to jail. With the local drug lords gone, however, the women are out of work again. Asked if they’d work at another farm, the answer comes back in an instant: Absolutely. After all, there’s nothing else to do.
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