At the EU's urging Albania is targeting cannabis cultivation, and elderly villagers who say growing pot is their only alternative to poverty are getting caught in the crackdown
TIRANA - Sofie Totaj struggles to make ends meet on her monthly pension of 50 euros.
“That’s all I have and I spend most of it on medicines,” she says.
But it’s not the throbbing arthritis pain in her legs that keeps the 80-year-old grandmother up at night. It’s fear of the police.
Totaj was sentenced a few months ago to two years in prison after an anti-drugs sweep in the southern Albanian village of Gjorm turned up four cannabis plants in her back yard. Now, like dozens of old people in her village, she is on the run.
Fearing arrest, they take refuge in neighbors’ homes, where they are locked in and don’t answer to strangers. When the police do come to Gjorm, the elderly outlaws, most of them women, seek refuge in the nearby forest and mountains.
As Albania vies for official candidate status to join the European Union, Brussels is insisting it crack down on the marijuana trade, which has prospered since the collapse of the country’s Stalinist regime in 1991.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Albania ranks second among European countries as a source of cannabis, behind only the Netherlands. The agency estimates that from 2004 to 2006 Albania produced 3.4 percent of the world’s cannabis, equal to the rest of the Balkan countries put together.
The right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Sali Berisha came to power in 2005 promising to wipe out marijuana cultivation. The following year Albania changed its drug laws so that police can charge those on whose land drugs are found without having to prove that the property owner planted them. To date 20 Gjorm elders have been charged.
“They called me up [in the nearby city of Vlora] and told me that I had been sentenced to two years in prison,” Totaj explains, sobbing and professing her innocence.
Stepped-up efforts to eradicate pot production have been hampered by widespread poverty and a lack of strategies to introduce new cash crops. And critics of Tirana’s war on drugs say it is only hitting the weakest links in the trade.
Interior Minister Bujar Nishani rejects the claim that Albania is losing the battle, pointing to the large number of marijuana plantations eradicated – nearly 81,000 plants in first seven months of 2008, he says.
Albania was the last Eastern European country to emerge from Communism, and even by the standards of its formerly socialist neighbors its economy was in tatters by the early 1990s thanks to the rabid isolationism of longtime dictator Enver Hoxha.
Despite recent economic growth averaging 5 percent of GDP a year, chronic unemployment and under-development have kept poverty the norm in the country, particularly in rural areas, home to 57 percent of the population.
According to the International Monetary Fund, nearly 25 percent of the country lives on less than $2 per day. The International Fund for Agricultural Development estimates that in Albania’s mountainous regions, 80 percent of families’ income comes from some type of government assistance.
Exacerbating the grinding poverty and the difficult transition to democracy was a lawless period in the mid-1990s, culminating in widespread rioting in 1997 after the spectacular failure of a series of pyramid schemes cost many people their savings.
The U.S. State Department’s 1998 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report characterized Albania as a fertile ground for drug traffickers, who filled the power vacuum left by weak state institutions. “Widespread unrest and violence early in 1997 and lack of effective border controls exacerbated illegal drug activity,” the report stated.
“Did I bring the drugs into this village? No. The government did, and its officials,” says Lirim Memushi, a 60-year-old Gjorm resident who is facing drug charges.
“I am a wanted man, but what can I do?” Memushi says. “We cultivated drugs because we have no other means. The government has left us with a 60 euro pension. How can we feed ourselves with such little money and pay for utilities at the same time?”
His friend Mustafa Seitaj, 74, agrees. Five of his six sons have already emigrated to EU countries in search of work, and the youngest plans to do the same.
“The village is mainly full of old people, who can’t work the land and are supported by their sons and daughters who have emigrated abroad,” Seitaj says.
Supported by his children’s life-saving remittances, Seitaj has not been forced to cultivate cannabis. “Those who don’t have anyone don’t have much of a choice,” he says.
Despite his legal peril, Memushi remains defiant: “I’m not afraid of going to jail, because I’m already in one.”
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Pilo Totaj, head of the Gjorm commune, says the repeated sweeps by authorities in the last few years have had an effect. Whereas before 2005 the village had thousands of cannabis plants, he says, the crop is no longer grown in Gjorm.
Prior to the crackdown, Totaj says, elderly villagers thought their illegal activities were normal. “Drug traffickers would come to the village and announce they were collecting plants through loudspeakers,” he says.
Totaj, who is unrelated to Sofie Totaj, claims that neighboring villages continue to plant cannabis and that Gjorm has been singled out unfairly.
Investigative reporter Artan Hoxha, whose report on marijuana growing in the Vlora area in southern Albania led to a sweep by authorities in 2005, agrees.
“The big traffickers have just switched areas where they contract villagers to cultivate,” Hoxha says, adding that the crop is on the increase in northern Albania.
Memo, a Gjorm resident who would not reveal his last name, said he was arrested in 2004 and served three years in prison for cultivating cannabis. He said that before the current government came to power, police would normally cut down the plants but never arrested or charged anyone.
“In the village we never used drugs,” he says. “We just cultivated it. The first time I saw it being smoked was in prison.
“In the end, it’s ironic to do time for cultivating something that you end up finding in prison.”
by Besar Likmeta
8 December 2008