Albania: 141st Most Populous Nation Ranks Seventh in Cannabis Supply
By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data
It may seem surprising that a smallish southeastern European with a population smaller than Kansas is such a big producer of cannabis, but Albania – with 2.9 million hectares of land tucked above Greece on the Adriatic coast – indeed ranks among the top seven nations worldwide for illegal cannabis cultivation and distribution. According to the authoritative World Drug Report 2022 from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Albania ranks globally as a supplier nation behind Morocco, Afghanistan, Spain, Netherlands, Pakistan and Lebanon, respectively.
That fact is not lost on European law enforcement agencies. So entrenched is illicit cannabis cultivation in the Balkan country that the mountainous region around Lazarat has been dubbed Europe’s “marijuana mountain”, to the extent that in 2014 – the year when Albania gained candidate status to join the European Union – there was a concerted military effort to destroy the crop, as if to show how tough they could get on the growers: Under pressure from the EU, Albanian police took Lazarat out of the marijuana business through shootout which lasted for days, resulting in the arrests of about 50 villagers. Nevertheless, by 2016 the region had bounced back with a hardy restoration of illicit cannabis cultivation.
Today, it seems that the country’s cannabis crop is being considered more responsibly after a change of mood in the ex-Communist country. The potential legalization of medical cannabis for export has recently been discussed in Albania, and the government has now presented draft legislation for public consultation about cannabis for medical use. The announcement is presumed to be a response to the UNODC report, seizing an opportunity to repair its reputation. At any rate, it serves as a start.
There are strict conditions in the legislation, which is yet to face ratification. Cultivation licences will be reserved for companies with $85,000 to invest; good for 15 years, the licenses will mandate farms of 150 hectares or larger which will employ at least 15 people. Licensing only extends to those with a cultivation background, with all applicants will be regulated by the National Agency for Control and Monitoring of Cannabis Plant Cultivation and Processing.
Meanwhile, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama is a reformist who wants to keep adult use illegal, while strictly limiting its cultivation as exports for industrial use. Consequently, political dissent from opposition politicians has erupted, with claims that Rama’s policy will perpetuate both an illicit market and negativity about Albania’s reputation. Proponents of adult-use legalization note that by restricting cannabis for exportation, Albanians themselves would lack access to cannabis for medical cannabis treatments, or to benefits from industrial hemp. However it sorts out, the legislation is expected to take effect in 2023.
Albania’s established preeminence in European cannabis cultivation stems from its peculiar history. A closed state allied to the former Soviet Union until the early 1990s, its transition to a market economy following the fall of Communism was, as elsewhere, marked by turbulence. Into power vacuum stepped criminal gangs who promoted illicit cannabis production in its mountainous areas, utilizing Albania’s Mediterranean climate. The illicit trade proved successful enough to encourage traffic in other illegal drugs, including heroin from the Middle East and cocaine from Latin America. Though the eradication or minimalization of the drug gangs are central to Albania’s reform policies, federal prohibition of both medical and adult-use cannabis seems likely for the foreseeable future.
Albania’s efforts underscore how the Balkans may enter the legal cannabis space. North Macedonia is already a producer, and last year announced intentions to legalise cannabis and stimulate tourism.
Recently, Canadian company Instadose Pharma invested in North Macedonia, providing access to the European market for South African cannabis. But despite positioning itself as a non-EU cannabis hub in Europe, North Macedonia has had teething problems, including a February raid of a medical cannabis company and the departure of cannabis-friendly Zaev.
Described in New Frontier Data’s Global Cannabis Report among the NFD Tier 4 (maintaining legal prohibition) countries and the neighboring Balkan nations, it’s a mixed bag, mostly lagging behind the Western Europe. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, which suffered badly in the 1991 Balkan War following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, there are moves to legalize medical cannabis – should the political will prevail to move it from a “prohibited substance and plant” to a “substance and plant under strict control.”
In Kosovo, which itself saw a huge bust in May, cannabis is strongly associated with criminality; in Serbia, cannabis is also frowned upon and last year medical cannabis patients were jailed for possession – despite working parties in the country looking at the potential of medical cannabis.
In countries of the region that have acceded to the European Union, it’s a slightly brighter picture. The more easterly states such as Bulgaria and Romania (where pharmaceutical cannabis is allowed under strict supervision) are less liberal than more westerly Croatia – where a cannabis museum has opened in its capital, Zagreb – and in Slovenia, which is friendlier yet.
Overall, then, Balkan fragmentation doesn’t present grounds for regional optimism, despite the region’s climate and terrain being one of the best in Europe for the growth of cannabis.
But in Greece – not normally considered a Balkan country but located at the bottom of the Balkan Peninsula – there are moves that could ripple up through the Balkans. What claims to be Europe’s most advanced medicinal cannabis processing plant launched in Corinthia in July to a fanfare. The $40 million euro Tikun Europe plant – a subsidiary of Israeli company Tikun Olam – is reportedly creating some 120 jobs locally and setting the scene for a cannabis-friendly Greece, which has aspirations for a $1.5 billion euros ($1.67 billion USD) windfall in state revenues through a more liberal cannabis outlook, as well as an open retail system for medical cannabis to will attract tourists and locals alike.
By extension, if Albania does manage to get its obstacles out of the way, its cannabis industry stands much to gain.