Sitting despondently in a Tirana café, Elez admits to having second thoughts about cultivating cannabis for a living.
“I’m not making real money this year and I’m scared of getting arrested . . . Prices [for cannabis producers] have collapsed and the police are swarming everywhere in our district,” says the unemployed 30-year-old from Lushnje in central Albania.
Elez expects to earn just €250-€300 from his small cannabis plantation, which is located in a forest to avoid its being spotted by a police helicopter or an aerial surveillance mission operated by Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, the country’s financial police, in co-operation with the Albanian government.
This is substantially less than last year when he earned more than €3,000 from a crop grown on his family farm, after paying a 10 per cent “tax” to local officials “who looked the other way”.
Thousands of small producers like Elez have made Europe’s second-poorest country its biggest open-air producer of cannabis, exported mainly to western Europe through Greece and Italy. But as Albania tries to clean up its act ahead of hoped-for EU accession talks next year, the government is cracking down on the drug trade. In the past year alone, the area under plantation has dropped by 75 per cent.
Edi Rama, the socialist prime minister who won a second term at parliamentary elections in June, says he expects Albania to join the EU in the early 2020s. But before talks can start, Albania — which has a reputation for lawlessness acquired during a violent transition in the 1990s from communist self-isolation to freewheeling frontier economy — must show progress in curbing organised crime and