Albanian intelligence photo of Lazarat, the country's weed capital. That's right, Albanian intelligence. (Sources: GlobalPost, Stephen McGrath/Rock Portrait Photography)
Considering the uncertain legality of a drug such as marijuana, the ability to successfully cultivate and smuggle it to different parts of the world is a very profitable trade. In addition, the profit to be made out of the drug trade makes for a very violent trade, with groups of people carrying automatic rifles for the purpose of protecting themselves from police and military. Still, it has come to the surprise of many in Europe that one of the key centers of the pot trade turns out to be a small village named Lazarat in rural Albania, which is running an expansive weed cultivation operation, and has a pretty solid army backing it to boot.
The village of Lazarat, located in southern Albania about 8 miles from the Greek border, possesses a population of about 7,000 people. The Albanian police have very little control over Lazarat, which is situated on mountain slope. Over the years, the villagers in Lazarat have grown their pot operation to covering more than 60 acres as of this year, surrounding the village. As the primary crop of the area, the villagers of Lazarat grow marijuana from May to September, and use 90% of the population to grow weed or manage the trade. Water trucks and migrant laborers, likely from bankrupt Greece or the Balkans, provide additional support.
The amount of land alone to grow this weed is enough to grow 500 tons. A yield that large can supply the entire continent of Europe with marijuana, based on current use rates. Even though Lazarat's weed costs a tenth of the average joint in a coffee shop in Amsterdam, the more well-known marijuana hub, Italian police have said the operation earns the villagers $6 billion per year. To put that into context, the GDP of the entire nation of Albania through legal trade is only $13 billion. Per villager, that's just under $1 million per year, making them the richest villagers in Europe.
Lazarat's proximity to the Greek border aids in trafficking weed. Helping matters for the villagers further is the financial crises of both Greece and Italy, making it easy to traffick weed through the borders through weak border controls or simple bribery. The Albanian economy has taken a hit because of its neighbors, allowing Lazarat to prosper on its own accord. Word of Lazarat's existence have also brought weed pilgrims to the village, who are let in on grounds that they do not take pictures or video.
This is not to say that Albanian police try to put an end to the marijuana business in Lazarat. Last year, they confiscated 15 tons of weed from Lazarat. But they find the village impenetrable: A raid attempt conducted by a local SWAT team last year ended in disaster, with defending villagers rolling in with automatic weapons, including a grandmother in her 70s firing a heavy machine gun.
The villagers have gained enough strength and audacity to send a formal request to the Albanian Parliament, asking for autonomy and the ability to legally sell weed within Lazarat. The Parliament declined, and have resorted to seizing migrant laborers and water trucks to weaken the yield. Still, with a marijuana operation that vast in a nation ill-suited to handle such a proposition, it seems that Lazarat will be running the local, if not continental, weed trade.