ECONOMY

Pot lifts Albanian farmers

VELCE, Albania – For Bedri Selimi, a farmer from southern Albania, cannabis has become the only way to provide basic needs for his six children and sick wife. «This is not my job, but poverty has driven me to it,» he explained, standing in front of his tiny piece of land, not longer than 15 meters and only three meters wide, where he has cultivated some 50 cannabis plants. In the village of Velce near Vlora, some 190 kilometers (115 miles) south of the capital Tirana, about 30 families have made the same choice in order to escape poverty. «Everyone does it here,» confirms Selimi, pointing his hand toward the area on both banks of the Vlora River. Albania, one of the poorest countries in Europe, is a known crossroads for smuggling of all kinds, particularly drugs on their way from Asia to the lucrative markets of the West. According to a UN report presented last year in Vienna, the Balkan country is also considered «the main marijuana supplier in Europe.» Although local authorities say they destroy between 70,000 and 100,000 plants every year, international police experts estimate that the local cannabis production reaches up to 150 tons per year. «This year, we have planted the seeds on steep ground, so police helicopters cannot mark them,» Selimi said, caressing delicately green leaves, awaiting their harvest in two weeks. Sixty-year-old Azmi Tusha said there was nothing wrong in selling cannabis to those «who want it.» Chewing an old cigar, he said that «a Greek man came several years ago and explained to us how to cultivate the cannabis. Everything is written here,» he said, showing like a relic a piece of yellow paper in his shabby wallet. «The Greek was right. For 10 years, demand for it is just increasing,» said this former communist party member as he guarded his fields with a gun. «Marijuana is the only way for us to survive,» he insisted, saying that the other producers «have big fields and are really getting rich.» Tusha has been selling his cannabis to a local intermediate «from 60 to 100 euros (74 to 123.5 dollars) for a kilo, depending on quality,» while Velce villagers have claimed that Albanian smugglers later sell drugs in Italy or Greece for 10 times more. High-quality cannabis, grown in Albania, is also smuggled via the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to Turkey, where drug dealers exchange it for heroin at the rate of 10 kilos of cannabis for 500 grams of heroin, according to a report presented in January at the meeting of Southeast European police forces in Greece. «Farmers can be satisfied this summer: production will be plentiful as the authorities have shown understanding,» said Xhavit Shala, director of the National Security studies center. Albania’s legislative elections in July could be a reason for such indulgence. «During the electoral times, it is in the interest of authorities to close their eyes to avoid farmers’ discontent and lose their votes,» Shala explained. «If there was a political will to stop the production, it would not be difficult at all,» he insisted. And Azmi Tusha agreed. «If those buying drugs from us are not linked with the police, it will not be possible to plant anything,» he said. Last year, Albanian police seized more than 200 kilos of heroin and about eight tons of cannabis. The amounts are double those in 2003, but still lower than the quantities that have passed through the country, valued at about 2 billion euros per year, international police officials here said.