Cannabis in the Balkans: from criminals to capitalists?

Posted on January 25th, 2019 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

EuropeA contraband cannabis economy booms in the Balkan Peninsula, where the wars of the 1990s spurred an underground dope-for-guns network that still thrives today. But amid EU pressure to crack down, a legal industry is now starting to emerge.

The Balkan Peninsula of Southeast Europe has an infamous reputation. The wars in the former Yugoslavia in the '90s, and the armed uprising in Albania in 1997, led to a profusion of criminal gangs that traded in contraband to bloat the arsenals of local militias and paramilitary groups. Albania especially is notorious as Europe's top producer of black-market cannabis, and the European Union has been demanding a crackdown.

In the latest eruption of sensationalism, Britain's The Independent on Jan. 29 headlined that Albania is the "Colombia of Europe," and went on to expound on "How tiny Albania became the continent's drug trafficking headquarters." The lurid "Colombia of Europe" line comes from an anonymous member of a joint Albanian-Italian coast guard patrol attempting to intercept the traffickers.

Reporter Borzou Daragahi makes clear that cannabis is key in this contraband economy. He writes: "[S]several years ago, the Albanian authorities launched an aggressive eradication effort in the countryside of the small, poor Balkan state, hoping that destroying the cannabis fields and arresting some of the growers would decrease the power of the traffickers, rid the country of its pariah status, and help ease its entry into the European Union."

However, he asserts: "Instead, it only convinced the traffickers to graduate into a more lucrative and deadly game." Namely, cocaine and heroin trafficking.

Yet cannabis remains a key contraband commodity—as evidenced in a recent blow against the criminal networks claimed by Albanian authorities

The 'Balkan Escobar'...of cannabis 
On Jan. 15, Klement Balili, Albania's top fugitive crime lord, handed himself in to the authorities. The local Tirana Times reports that the man dubbed the "Balkan Esobar" had been engaged in secret negotiations wth the national police for a peaceful surrender to face trafficking charges. The case against him emerged from a 2016 joint operation by Greek authorities and the US DEA, in which over 670 kilograms of cannabis was seized on the isle of Zakynthos. The investigation led back tp Balili—as well as corrupt Albanian police agents who were protecting him.

Colombia's late kingpin Pablo Escobar himself graduated from en empire of contraband cannabis in the '70s to one of cocaine in the '80s and '90s. But it's pretty clear that the Balkan drug lords have not advanced nearly so far along this trajectory. After years of eradication efforts, Albania is still producing plenty, and it is still making its way up the Peninsula to European markets, across the Adriatic Sea to Italy, or down the coast to Greece, for further re-export.

In the latest of ongoing big seizures in the region, police in Bosnia and Herzegovina arrested three and confiscated 240 kilograms of what local reports called "skunk" on Jan. 9. The bust took place at the town of Gacko, on Bosnia's border with the fellow ex-Yugoslav republic of Montenegro. Authorities said there is steady route used by traffickers from Albania through Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia.

A burgeoning legal sector 
A legal cannabis industry is beginning to emerge in the Balkans—although not in Albania, the heart of the contraband industry. ICC International Cannabis Corp, the Vancouver-based firm with global ambitions, (already operating in Colombia and in Lesotho),  recently announced a deal to acquire all of the Balkan Cannabis Corp. The BCC, founded just last year by investors from Montenegro, already has large land holdings being prepared for cultivation in Macedonia, another ex-Yugoslav republic, as well as in Bulgaria. The deal was reported late last month by Proactive Investors, and confirmed as consummated last week by Bulgaria's Sofia News Agency.

Through a Macedonia subsidiary, the BCC has been granted license to cultivate on 30 hectares (75 acres) in the town of Valandovo. The subsidiary controls a total of 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) with a two-year option to buy an additional 15,000 hectares. It also holds Macedonia's only extraction license to date, according to Sofia News Agency. in a press release, ICC said it will produce "medical cannabis and hemp" products at the facility. It boasted that that anticipated output will make Balkan Cannabis Corp "the most dominant player in the region."

Cannabis still a cover for political persecution
Even amid this progress toward normalization of cannabis in the Balkans, its generally illegal status and association with criminality still seem to come in handy when corrupt political elites wish to silence a troublesome voice. Award-winning investigative reporter Jovo Martinovic was sentenced to one-and-a-half years in prison in Montenegro on Jan. 16—on charges of trafficking cannabis.

Martinovic of course asserts that he's being framed. “Trafficking in marijuana would have made no sense to me. I just don’t have any motivation to do it, I have an international career,” he said at the last hearing in December.

Martinovic was arrested in October 2015 while investigating arms-trafficking networks in the Balkans. He spent 15 months in jail before being released on bail. He had also worked on stories about the notorious "Pink Panther" international jewel thieves gang, whose members are mainly from the ex-Yugoslavia (and which was implicated in heist from Kim Kardashian in 2016).  Martinovic believes he was targeted for a set-up because he resisted pressure to become an informant for Montenegro's intelligence services. "I refused to collaborate and spy for them," he told The Guardian.

The apparent frame-up is being protested by Reporters Without Borders and other international press-freedom advocacy groups.

"The jailing of an investigative journalist for his reporting on an important issue of public interest is a terrible injustice that will have chilling effects on press freedom in Montenegro," asserted Gulnoza Said, Europe program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. "We call on the authorities in Montenegro to not contest Jovo Martinović's appeal and right this wrong."

The use of cannabis charges to squelch dissidence was also seen in the notorious case reported from Chechnya last year—another part of the post-communist world where wars in the 1990s have left a legacy of criminality and corruption. There, it was the republic's most prominent human rights defender who was busted. Hopefully, the normalization of cannabis in the Balkans will soon come to undermine the stigma that lubricates such repression.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now


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