A new report from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has highlighted evidence pointing to a rising number of Albanian minors being used by drug gangs for product distribution.
Experts and officials interviewed said criminal groups are increasingly targeting Albanian minors from poor families, relying on the fact that if these individuals are caught and shown to be using the drugs themselves, the case is unlikely to escalate or lead to heavy penalties.
“These minors are being exploited for distributing drugs in very small quantities, such as cannabis or heroin, but they are often tempted to try them,” said Elina Kondi, a Tirana prosecutor dealing with juvenile crime, “if they can prove they are users they face no penal consequences.”
Albania is a major producer of cannabis, and a known transit country for Class A drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
In 2018, close to one third of inmates in Albanian prisons had been detained on drug charges. Between 2018 and 2021, the number of minors investigated or arrested on drug charges almost doubled.
Moreover, experts working with juvenile offenders say official statistics only give a small glimpse of the whole story.
“Each month, some 70 minors end up in police stations in Tirana suspected of various penal offences, from quarrels to serious crimes such as involvement in theft or drug distribution,” said Besmira Mucaj, a psychologist working with the police.
Under Albania’s reformed penal code, a juvenile will not face prosecution for dealing if just a trace of cannabis is found in their blood. This complicates the efforts of investigators trying to ascertain the boundaries between users and distributors.
Investigations conducted by authorities thus far have shown that crime gangs have often used Albanian minors for small theft crimes, paid them in cannabis, and then exploited their social and financial vulnerability to recruit them as distributors of drugs.
On 30 August, a 17-year-old boy known as Cerri, or “Tiny”, was arrested for selling cannabis. He said he received ten percent of his revenue, offloading the rest to two men he described as “the manager and the owner.”
Cerri told police that the manager “asked me if I was interested in work since I need money; my father is jobless and my mum died so I took the chance. As a family, we have debts and I wanted to pay them off.”
Neither the “manager” nor “owner” were ever arrested.
Those working with Albanian minors say it is difficult to reform and rehabilitate these young offenders without institutional support.