It may be hard for most people to locate Albania on a map (it is a coastal country directly across the Adriatic Sea from Italy) but what has just happened there is certainly unique to the legalization discussion. After being named the 7th worst country in the world for illegal cannabis activities, the government decided to legalize medical cannabis.
The law, entitled “control of the cultivation and processing of the cannabis plant and the production of its by-products for medical and industrial purposes” is now online.
The Status of the Legislation
The draft law does not lay out a lot of detail except for its intent to regulate cannabis production for medical use and for its export. Additional details that have now showed up in the press coverage of the situation mention that licensing will be granted for greenhouses and other secured, covered areas up to 150 hectares and will be valid for a maximum of 15 years. Companies must also show working capital of about $85,000, have at least 15 employees and must pay a levy to the state of 1.5% of the annual company turnover.
However, by far the most interesting thing about such developments is that this bill was specifically prompted by the high ranking “achieved” by Albania on the U.N.’s recent report on drugs and crime. The fact that the country was actually named for the “Balkan route” for trafficking heroin from Pakistan to western countries, including across the Adriatic to Italy does not help matters.
The bill will now be available for public comment, after which it will be forwarded to Parliament.
Opposition groups are furious, calling the development irresponsible and claiming that it will only facilitate even more illegal cultivation. Enkelejd Alibeaj, a member of Parliament and leader of one of the two political groups now opposed to this reform also accused the prime minister of going soft on the issue, even after his former interior minister is in prison due to involvement with “criminal groups of cannabis trafficking.”
Many criminal gangs have also moved their production indoors to evade detection.
About one third of the 8,328 Albanians prosecuted for cannabis trafficking between 2013 and 2019 were actually convicted.
The government, in contrast, believes that this law will enable them to control the legal industry—and even bring in much needed foreign export income.
Eliminating the Black Market via Medical Reform
While admirable, and most definitely overdue, this law may well not achieve what it intended. Then again, so far, what legalization effort has gone smoothly anywhere? That said, North Macedonia, right next door, is in a similar position. Medical cannabis reform, however, has not so far been the windfall that was hoped for, in large part because of the complexity of exporting this narcotic from a non-European country to the E.U.—and from the Balkans.
However, it is clearly a step in an inevitable position.
The History of Cannabis in Albania
Albania is no stranger to large-scale cannabis cultivation. Indeed, it became a large part of the economy after the fall of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s as the country’s economic situation collapsed. The illicit, albeit at first localized, industry was subsequently penetrated by a series of increasingly powerful and violent gangs. This period peaked in about 2016—the same year that Albania was named as one of the largest illicit producers in the world. Even though there was a concerted international effort to disrupt this the next year, it has not achieved much except push traffickers into more remote areas and to take additional evasion techniques.
The government of Albania has also cooperated with international police forces to attempt to stop the problem via military means. Indeed, with the aid of Italian reconnaissance flights between 2013 and 2019, authorities identified 613 hectares (1,514 acres) of land planted with cannabis, much of it centred in the southern village of Lazarat, also dubbed “Europe’s cannabis capitol.” In a country which is only 2.9 million hectares, this is a significant amount of territory.
In such an environment, it will be interesting to see the impact of legalization of at least medical cultivation—particularly as the entire issue of cannabis reform moves forward internationally.
The recent U.N. report on international drugs and crime was also controversial for its assertions about increased cannabis use and the reasons for it. It appears it has now had a visceral impact on at least one country’s reform schedule the week after Germany concluded its own hearings on recreational cannabis reform.
Marguerite Arnold is a veteran cannabis industry journalist, covering the market from Germany since 2013. Her second book, Green II: Spreading Like Kudzu, about the inside story of the first German cannabis cultivation bid, is on sale now in English and German.