ATHENS — Cannabis is often viewed as a harmless drug, but for traffickers and police in southeastern Europe, it is a serious business that involves speedboats, donkeys, automatic guns and chainsaws.
Two months ago, Greek security forces seized 1.5 tons of hashish after an operation in the Mediterranean that looked like a scene out of a James Bond film.
On a Coast Guard helicopter, officers shot into the water to stop smugglers on a speedboat, but the criminals raced on and only gave up when a maritime police boat appeared on the scene.
Greek and Italian authorities have been cooperating at sea to catch the cannabis smugglers and their nimble boats that are powered by engines with up to 1,400 horsepower.
Cannabis is the most widely used drug in the world. Nearly 14 percent of young Europeans have smoked it at least once in the previous year, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.
The drug is therefore also a big business in Europe, with an estimated annual value of 9.3 billion euros (US$10.2 billion).
Albania is the main source of cannabis herb in Europe, and it is a major distribution hub for cannabis resin from Afghanistan, according to the annual organized crime report by the EU police agency Europol.
The distance between the shores of Albania and Italy is only 70 kilometers — a one-hour boat ride across the Adriatic Sea.
Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, also shares a land border with Greece.
“To transport the cannabis safely across the countryside border, the smugglers train donkeys that know how to navigate the trails by themselves. They are picked up on the other side,” a police spokesman said.
If police come across such a caravan, all they can do is to seize the drugs, without catching the human masterminds.
While this mode of transport sounds almost idyllic, authorities say the traffickers are not peaceful, but armed.
“I’m afraid to go on patrol on the border. We never know when and where the drug mafia will appear, and whether they shoot,” a Greek border officer told dpa.
Cannabis production in Greece is smaller than in Albania, but it is clearly expanding.
In 2015, Greek authorities eradicated 55,000 plants — two-thirds more than the annual average in the 10 previous years.
The drug police uses machetes and chainsaws to cut down the plants, which grow up to 4 meters high in the sunny southern European climate.
However, police are not always able to reach the plantations.
A cannabis mafia that is known to use automatic guns is controlling remote mountain areas on the island of Crete.
Three police officers were wounded during a raid several years ago. Now, even special police forces rarely venture into this area of Crete.