The Cannabis Capital of the World

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Michael Ransom, Contributing EditorLast Modified: 06:45 p.m. DST, 24 June 2014

Marijuana Bud, Photo by Smokers High Life

LAZARAT, Albania -- This past week, the Albanian government waged a war against the large-scale cultivation of marijuana in the small town of Lazarat, which is 140 miles south of the Albanian capital. Lazarat has been called the 'cannabis capital' of Europe, and it comes by this title honestly. International officials estimate that the small village alone produces 900 metric tons of cannabis each year, which brings in over $6 billion annually.

The offensive began last Monday, 16 June, as Albanian special forces donned Kevlar vests and stormed the village in army vehicles designed to withstand automatic weapons and shelling attacks. Their protective gear proved important, as cartel-style gangs defended drug warehouses and weapons caches. The firefight lasted days, and on Wednesday, 18 June, police and rebels reached a ceasefire agreement.

In 1990 and 1997, the Albanian government was overhauled in order to address widespread corruption and centralized wealth. The new socialist administration has sought to join the European Union multiple times in recent years, but their intentions have not translated to EU membership for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Albanian admission is the cannabis industry.

For nearly two decades, Lazarat has made Albania the 'cannabis capital' of the European bloc, as their marijuana yield is distributed through nearby Italy and further westward. Armed with weapons seized during the 1990 and 1997 revolutions, gangs in Lazarat were omnipotent until last Wednesday. Similar problems may persist in other rural areas of Albania, but certainly not to the same extent as Lazarat.

While opposition to Albania's inclusion in the EU is centered around the production of marijuana, many Albanians see the industry as useful and profitable. Most in Albania would agree, however, that the gangs in Lazarat and other townships gain tremendous revenue through the distribution of marijuana, and these organized crime vehicles present a threat to residents of Lazarat and nearby locales.

The defensive volley of ammunition and explosives that were discharged from gang controlled safe houses is best explained by what is at stake in the standoff. The $6 billion industry in Lazarat alone totals half of the entire country's Gross Domestic Product. It is astounding that such a small village, located in a relatively small nation, could feed so much of the European marijuana market on its own.

More than marijuana, this move by officials in Tirana signals the eradication of small gang militias, which in a sense own and operate the small village of Lazarat. Those in charge in Tirana believe that the people of Lazarat will be better off without the coalition of gangs running the township, but that will remain to be seen. In the meantime, Albania is one step closer to association with the European Union.

Follow Michael on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Editor: @MAndrewRansom

Albanian Women Swearing Virginity to Live as Men

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KRUJE, Albania -- In Albania, where culture is dictated by patriarchy, some women are taking vows of celibacy and living their lives as men.

These “sworn virgins”, or burrneshas in Albanian, save the honor of their families by becoming a proxy patriarch. As Albania modernizes and women’s rights improve, this dying custom is still being practiced by women in small villages.

The burrneshas, translated as “he-she”, custom is one that has existed historically in Albania, dating back to the fifteenth century. In the Balkan tribal communities, they followed a Kanun law, according to The Huffington Post. They also say, Kanun law is particularly restrictive towards women as it “prohibits women from voting, driving, earning money or wearing pants.”

This law also mandated that tribal clans had to outcast any families without a male figure. Because of internal tribal warfare, however, men in the families were often killed. Women in families then faced a dilemma, how they could maintain their family’s honor. If there was a virginal female in the family, though, they could to assume the role of patriarch and become a man to save the family.

Part of the burrneshas transition to becoming a man means taking an oath of virginity. A photographer who documented burrneshas, Jill Peters, wrote on her website about these women saying, “Becoming a sworn virgin or burrnesha elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population.” She continued, “In order to manifest the transition, such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. [… ] Most importantly of all, she took a celibacy vow to remain chaste for life.”

Even though these women are faced with the obligation of preserving their family’s honor by living a restricted life, unable to have a family of their own, they do not see it as a burden. Peters told Slate, “None of them had regrets. They’re very proud of their families, of their nephews and nieces.” Because of the sacrifice these women make, they are actually treated as respected individuals in their community.

In many cases, living as a burrnesha is liberating for Albanian women for whom marriages are arranged and lives restricted to the household. Pashe Keqi, a burrnesha, told The New York Times how she felt freer living as a man saying, “I was totally free as a man because no one knew I was a woman.” She continued, “I could go wherever I wanted to and no one would dare swear at me because I could beat them up. I was only with men. I don’t know how to do women’s talk. I am never scared.”

With modernization spreading in Albania, women are gaining more rights and with that the burrnesha tradition is diminishing. Thus, the older generations are believed to be the most authentic burrneshas because they were forced into the lifestyle—as opposed to women today that are not under as much pressure. Qamile Stema, the last burrnesha in her village told The New York Times, “We respect sworn virgins very much and consider them as men because of their great sacrifice. But there is no longer a stigma not to have a man of the house.”

Slate reports that actually only a few dozen burrneshas still practice, mostly in remote areas. As the country continues to modernize progress for women, the burrnesha tradition will become obsolete.

Follow Allyson on Twitter Twitter: @nahmias_report Contributing Journalist: @allysoncwright

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