It's a normal workday in the town of Himare, which is to say the townspeople aren't doing much at all. In fact, the whole place is bathed in an almost narcotic stupor. Only a bunch of snazzily dressed young men sipping cappuccino underneath the palm trees by the wharfside cafe seem to be engaged in any business. "Fifty kilos? No problem," barks one twentysomething lad into his mobile phone. "It'll be ready tomorrow."
All along Albania's southern coastline, the black economy is in full bloom these days--and so is the green gold that's fueling it. Up in the hills overlooking the region's secluded inlets and smugglers' coves, neat plantations of cannabis sativa nestle in the sun, well watered by irrigation channels tapped from mountain streams, and guarded by hatchet-faced youths sporting jogging suits and Kalashnikov rifles. "It began in 1991," recalls 18-year-old Fatos, who tends the three-acre plot that was returned to his family after Albania's communist regime folded. "A Greek businessman brought our village some hemp seeds to grow as an experiment. The next year we sold seeds to our neighbors. The year after that, everyone was into it."
At first, Fatos recalls, Albania's new rulers--prodded by the Western governments and agencies they relied on for soft loans and credits--tried to nip the trade in the bud. In 1995, there were armed clashes between farmers and special antinarcotics police who destroyed around 100,000 plants. But the past five years have seen fewer than 10 prosecutions and even fewer real police sweeps. In Fatos' stone cottage, the modern trappings of the trade have been grafted onto an ancient peasant culture. A satellite TV dish hangs next to his grandfather's hookah pipe on the verandah wall, while a Japanese off-road vehicle has supplanted the donkey cart. "This village will sell half a million dollars' worth of grass this year," boasts Fatos' mother. Annual Albanian marijuana revenue is estimated at $40 million.
Despite the rewards, though, dope dealing was for a long time just a sideline in these parts. Since the dawn of democracy at the start of the 1990s, the Ionian coastline has been a haven for scams. The local ports of Vlore and Durres, for example, were home to a series of pyramid schemes that offered returns as high as 50% a month. When the supply of fresh cash dried up in early 1997, the schemes collapsed, leaving almost every local family destitute. Some 15% of Albania's 3.3 million population fled abroad, mostly to Italy, ferried by smugglers using powerful motor launches. Only as the flow of refugees slowed to a trickle did the racketeers switch cargoes. "Until then, marijuana had been a problem but a containable one," recalls Albanian Foreign Ministry official Itland Bicprendi. "It was just boys filling their rucksacks with grass and crossing the mountains into Greece."
FREE ZONE. No longer. The Italian mafiosi who control distribution are using immigration loopholes and old smuggling networks to spread their wares all over Europe. Italy is a signatory to the Schengen Accord, a 1990 treaty that virtually abolished passport controls within most of the European Union. Once outsiders manage to pierce the Schengen zone, drug agencies complain, they, too, can move around nearly unimpeded. "You used to find Albanian refugees turning up in Zurich and Amsterdam," comments Zef Preci of the Albanian Statistical Office. "Now it's Albanian marijuana."
There are some Albanian optimists who believe that, left to market forces, at least some dope dealers will soon be looking for a new line of work. As more landowners switch to the new cash crop, the price has dropped. Top-grade Albanian hashish currently sells wholesale at $120 to $140 per kilo, whereas three years ago, farmers were getting $240 to $360, and in '92 the rate was $1,200.
The question is: If Albanian farmers stop growing marijuana, what will they do instead? In the aftermath of 1997's civil unrest, Western organizations suspended grants and loans that would have kept "legitimate" farmers on the straight and narrow. Now it's too late: Many citrus orchards and olive groves have been rooted up to make way for more marijuana, and any replacement saplings would take years to reach maturity. It looks as if Albania's black-market culture will be around for a while yet.