After police crackdowns made outdoor cultivation of cannabis more risky, gangs in the last two years have turned increasingly to cultivation indoors, which police cannot spot from the air.

Albanian Gangs Growing Cannabis Indoors to Avoid Detection

Illustration: Crystalweed/Unsplash.

Data that BIRN has obtained show that while only three cases of indoor cannabis cultivation were recorded during 2021, the number of cases rose to 18 by May this year.

BIRN asked police for data over the last five years, but they did not have records for before 2021.

“During 2021, three cases of indoor cultivation were identified; 379 identified cannabis Sativa plants and 34 cubic roots were destroyed,” police said.

“For the year 2022, a total of 18 cases have been identified, of which in three cases only electrical appliances, bulbs, etc, were found, without plants attempted for cultivation; 3,342 unknown cannabis Sativa plants and 2,318 cubic roots were destroyed,” they added.

“This kind of illegal activity is done in adapted spaces such as greenhouses, warehouses, tunnels, abandoned buildings, former military units, etc,” police continued.

Fabian Zhilla a security and crime expert based in Tirana, says numbers will likely rise because this method of cannabis cultivation is considered safer from police investigations, compared with the others, and that it is a method learnt from abroad and proven effective.

“This method is seen as a safe way to be protected from investigations that the police do either from the air or through internal sources. It comes as a result of the experiences that Albanians have gained mainly in the Benelux, and they are applying them and it has been successful,” he told BIRN..

“This number is like to increase because [it] has proven to be effective. Secondly, it doesn’t bring problems and costs related to seasonal conditions,” he added.

An article by the UK Telegraph in February this year said: “Albanian gangs are cornering the market in cannabis farms as they exploit modern slavery laws to avoid prosecution,” quoting the UK National Crime Agency.

“When police raid the disused industrial buildings or residential properties housing the cannabis farms, the ‘labourers’ often claim that they are victims of trafficking and exploitation to avoid prosecution and deportation,” it added.

Based on the latest report from the US State Department on drugs, released in March this year, Albania is considered a “source country of cannabis and a home base for organized crime groups moving illicit drugs from source countries into European markets.

“Albanian cannabis is sent to Turkey and exchanged for heroin and cocaine, which are smuggled across Europe by Albanian national traffickers,” it noted.

Weak rule of law, corruption, and a high rate of unemployment are primary drivers behind Albania’s drug control problem, the report says.

In a previous report, BIRN noted that 8,328 Albanians were prosecuted for cultivating or trafficking cannabis between 2013 and 2019, of whom 3,739 were convicted.

Large-scale cannabis cultivation in Albania dates back to the early-1990s, not long after the fall of the Communist dictatorship, when the parlous state of the economy led to widespread unrest.

Penetrated by ever more powerful criminal gangs, the industry reached a peak in 2016, when Albania was one of the biggest producers in the world.

With the aid of Italian aerial reconnaissance flights between 2013 and 2019, authorities identified 613 hectares of land planted with cannabis.

For a long time, cultivation was concentrated in and around the southern village of Lazarat, once known as ‘Europe’s cannabis capital, until a massive police raid in 2014 dispersed production to other parts of the country.

The second crackdown in 2017 made inroads but failed to eradicate production, again pushing it to even more remote areas and helping drive up prices.

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