Lazarat is a town no one had hardly ever heard of until a few days ago when it became famous for battling security forces until the bitter end. Anything to protect its immense cannabis plantations, which employ most of its population.
Lazarat is a small town located to the south of Tirana, the capital of Albania, eight kilometres away from the Greek border. Just over 5,000 people live there and just recently it has become well-known for its production of cannabis.
The town has a plantation of nearly 60 acres, which can grow more than 300,000 marijuana plants, each measuring up to three metres high.
Its inhabitants, and foreign labour, produce up to 900 tonnes of cannabis a year, worth around 3,600 million euros, which would mean a large sum of money to every inhabitant in the village. It is a place where 90% of the population is engaged in tending the marijuana, and where the weed costs a tenth of what it is worth in places like Amsterdam.
Some people have dubbed the town the 'Mecca' of marijuana, the real Amsterdam or the European capital of cannabis. However, very few have even heard of this place, especially because, over the years, its neighbours have successfully guarded it and kept it closed off from the police and the media. Their goal? To safeguard their main livelihood: the production of cannabis - illegal in the country- and which takes place between May and September each year.
In fact, up until a year ago, the story of Lazarat was just a legend that became reality when two young tourists managed to enter the territory and describe their experience, as well as recording a video. The witnesses say that they were able to see the areas of cultivated land, the people giving away and selling marijuana, and even young children walking between the plantations on their way to school.
The world vs. Lazarat
In Lazarat a kilo of marijuana can be purchased "in bulk" at a price of approximately 350 euros. But, if you want to make business, the villagers will sell you the product for something between 500 and 800 euros, especially if you intend to take it out of the country.
Albania's political opposition to the “cannabis hub” situation is clear. This is despite the fact that the country is well aware that Lazarat helps improve its poor economic condition, aggravated by the crisis in the neighbouring countries of Greece and Italy. The instability of these nations promotes the distribution of cannabis across borders and facilitates the arrival of pilgrims attracted by cannabis, who are committed to being as discreet as possible during their stay.
In any case, the Albanian police - aided by their Italian neighbours - try to prevent any cannabis-related dealings between Lazarat and the nearby towns and provinces.
The pressure is so high that, each year, when the growing season begins and immigrants start arriving from other countries to work in Lazarat, they are arrested - at least for a while - and searched to see if they are transporting marijuana.
This is why the activist movement in Albania is standing firm and demanding special status from the state to legalise the production and sale of marijuana, at least within the town. The request has been continually rejected by the political elite, but the townsfolk fiercely defend their crops and do not allow the security forces to break into the territory. When they do, the response is immediate.
Two years ago, in 2012, anti-riot and sniper teams led a special assault with the aim of entering Lazarat and arresting the supposed European drug trafficking kingpins. Some have described the situation as a fierce gunfight akin to a "real war". Literally.
However, the operation failed because of opposition from an entire people who fought against the officers from the very moment that the police began to cut down the plants. All local chronicles describe the same moment: when a 70-year old woman seized a gun to defend her crops. Due to scenes like this, the authorities have only attempted to access the protected cannabis enclave on very few occasions.
The ultimate resistance
Nevertheless, the story was repeated very recently. For five days, the Albanian people of Lazarat resisted the police pressure to defend the space where many of its citizens produce the marijuana and hashish which has supplied many European countries over the years.
Finally, after an operation which involved 800 police officers - including special ops - the rebels were forced to bow to pressure from the security forces, whose sole purpose was to destroy the plantations. This they did only after defending their property to the last, with grenades, rockets, mortars and heavy machine guns.
Apparently, more than 80,000 cannabis plants have been destroyed. According to official sources, this total should also include the cumulative marijuana production from last year, which citizens of the town would have got rid of before the police succeeded in capturing the territory.
According to initial reports, the losses make up for almost half the GDP income of a country whose population does not exceed three million inhabitants.
So far, some of those thought to be responsible for the resistance have been arrested and the police have visited over 200 homes in search of the others involved. It seems that this operation is nothing more than a political measure, which aims to see Albania elevated to European Union candidate country status next week. This time, it appears that the State has won the battle.
For now, the future of Lazarat, the largest producer of marijuana in Europe, is unclear. But it seems certain that its residents will continue to fight and defend their land at any cost, regardless of the battles that come their way.