Perspectives | Economy

Kosovo should consider legalizing cannabis

By - 21.10.2019

Regulated legalization could be more beneficial than current penalization approach.

Hundreds of Kosovars are arrested every year by Kosovar police for possession of drugs — most commonly marijuana (cannabis). 

Youth are the most frequent “victims” of the current drug policy in Kosovo, those in their 20s and even high school students; they are also the people who cannot make their voices heard because of the stigma and prejudice attached to the use of marijuana or other substances here. 

“I like smoking pot occasionally,” says Niki, a 20-year-old student from Prizren who wants to keep his identity private because only his close friends know of his habits. “I am also a great student, and I already have a job in my profession — graphic design,” he continues. “I am most definitely not a criminal, but if I get caught smoking, I will be treated as a criminal by the system.” 

His fear is not unfounded. One of his best friends, also a very good and hard-working student, has been arrested for possession once, which led to a lot of difficulties. Aside from having to resolve the case through the court system, he also lost his chance to obtain a visa and to participate in an exchange program he had been selected for, because of his problems with the law. 

What is the situation?

Like the majority of countries around the world, Kosovo’s approach toward drugs in general and toward cannabis in particular are outdated and aligned with those formerly promoted by UN agencies and other international authorities on drugs. 

The Kosovar National Strategy Against Narcotics and the Action Plan 2018-2022 puts forth as its purpose to “develop, by rational use of material, financial and human resources, policies for taking responsibility for protecting the individual and society from the problems resulting from the narcotics abuse.”

Enforcement strategies employed by the Kosovo Police, such as a strong presence of the police’s special forces at checkpoints as well as raids in bars and clubs, have yielded little results.

The strategy sets forth three specific objectives geared toward fulfilling its purpose: “demand and harm reduction,” “offer and supply reduction” and “cooperation and coordination.” 

In practice, the actions of law enforcement agencies have been primarily geared toward demand reduction, and less focused on the other specific objectives. The Drug Treatment Systems in the Western Balkans report published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the  European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) indicates that treatment options for cannabis and other substances in Kosovo remain limited, although they are slowly expanding. 

Most drug treatments available in Kosovo are offered by the Psychiatric Clinic of the University Clinical Centre of Kosovo and by the NGO Labyrinth, which provides treatment in the form of detoxification services, psychosocial treatment (such as counseling and psychotherapy) and Opioid Substitution Therapy (OST) with methadone. Outpatient psychosocial drug treatment is primarily provided by Labyrinth, which has units in Prizren, Gjilan and Prishtina.

Enforcement strategies employed by the Kosovo Police, such as a strong presence of the police’s special forces — the elite and most expensive unit within the Kosovo Police — at checkpoints, as well as raids in bars and clubs, have yielded few results. At best, they are geared toward discouraging the use of substances (i.e. demand reduction) and in some cases, these measures have adversely affected other specific strategies.

Policing of drugs in Kosovo:

In 2018, 1,174 field operations were implemented by Kosovo Police relating to drug policy law enforcement.

These resulted in the arrest of 2,171 persons, and 1,697 criminal charges against 2,005 persons.

The police also implemented operative order “Stop drugs in schools,” which involved: 35,463 patrols around schools; 18,959 visits and contacts with schools; 293 raids/searches; 19,721 car searches in checkpoints; 40,390 persons searched; 596 persons arrested, of which 127 were schoolchildren and of which 492 pertained to illegal possession of narcotics.

The most recent version of the Kosovo Criminal Code (NO. 06/L-074), enacted in January 2019, defines sanctions against persons found in possession of cannabis and other psychotropic substances. 

Article 269, concerning the unauthorized possession of narcotics, psychotropic or analogue substances, foresees financial penalties and imprisonment of one to three years for anyone found in possession of such substances. For first-time offenders found in possession of no more than three grams, the article foresees either financial penalties or up to one year’s imprisonment. In practice, the reported level of fines for first-time offenders that is currently applied lies between 250 and 300 euros.

In terms of effectiveness, during 2018, the combined efforts of law enforcement agencies have resulted in the confiscation of 119 kg of heroin, 1.7 kg of cocaine, 987.3 kg of cannabis and 259 cannabis plants. The majority of successful seizures have taken place through cooperation with regional and international drug enforcement agencies, primarily at border crossings and/or through covert operations based on intelligence information. The majority of the other cases involving the physical presence of police have resulted in many criminal cases, but small quantities of illicit substances seized. 

The 2018 Kosovo Budget indicates that 68.7 million of the total police budget of 95.3 million euros were spent on salaries. Given such expense structure, and the fact that the elite special forces are the costliest to develop and maintain, dispatching them to find drugs at checkpoints is a careless use of the police’s most strategic and trained asset, which would produce significantly better results if oriented toward combating organized criminal groups.

Around 10% of over 5,500 Kosovars surveyed report knowing someone who uses cannabis.

Kosovo is a transit country for drugs, not a place of origin or a significant destination market, therefore the physical presence of special forces at city checkpoints or enacting raids in bars is a rather inefficient approach to countering transit trafficking. 

Organized crime is one of the biggest problems singled out by the EU, and the only remaining major challenge alongside corruption keeping Kosovo from being included in the so-called “White Schengen List,” which enables visa-free travel to the EU. 

The 2018 EU Progress Report for Kosovo notes that “beyond the progress made on meeting visa liberalization requirements, sustained efforts must continue to fight organized crime, drug trafficking, human smuggling and corruption, in addition to concrete efforts to manage irregular migration flows and bring down the number of unfounded asylum claims.” 

According to the 2014 National General Population Survey on Drug Use and Attitudes in Kosovo, around 10% of over 5,500 Kosovars surveyed report knowing someone who uses cannabis. According to the same study, cannabis is also the most accessible illicit substance — with 12.6% of Kosovars surveyed reporting very easy or fairly easy access to the substance. 

The lifetime prevalence (persons admitting to have used cannabis at least once) is quite low, with only 2% of Kosovars admitting to having consumed cannabis. However this figure is believed to be much higher, since most people would not readily admit to consuming cannabis in a survey, due to prevalent attitudes and the manner in which society treats drug users. 

The public perception toward cannabis is very prejudiced. Its status as a drug sanctioned by the Criminal Code of Kosovo has been one of the most important factors fueling prejudice, and substance users are treated socially as criminals. The practice of using the word “drug” to describe all narcotics, from cannabis to cocaine and heroin, is one of the primary linguistic and cultural aspects fueling the prejudice. 

The survey noted above also reports that drug addicts are perceived as criminals by 17.7% of Kosovars and as patients by 35.4%, while 25.7% consider drug addicts as both criminals and patients. The report also notes that due to the fact that cannabis possession is illegal, rolling papers — an otherwise legal product in Kosovo — are also imported and traded illegally.

How did we get here? 

Cannabis has been one of the most stigmatized plants in the world for the past five decades. It is best known for its psychoactive properties, which today are the most widespread reason for its use — but there is a growing acknowledgement among national and international health organizations of its medicinal potential

Its documented use across cultures ranges from the production of fiber, food, oil, medicine and animal feed, as well as diverse uses in religious, spiritual and recreational activities. It has been around human societies for millennia. It is indigenous to Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and has possibly been cultivated as early as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. It is speculated that it might be one of the first domesticated plants.

The global policies on cannabis, but also other psychotropic substances, were largely dictated by the attitudes and policies adopted in the United States.

Cannabis has also been documented to grow in the wild in Europe, Asia, North America, and Africa, although the truly wild variety is very rare today. Instead, most of what is documented to grow in the wild today is a form of feral cannabis, descended from industrial hemp plants cultivated in the past by humans. 

So how did this common plant, with a long tradition of use, become illegal in most countries around the globe?

Some sources evidence the earliest limitations on cannabis taking place in the middle east, as early as in the 14th century. As colonial powers increasingly came in close contact with cannabis-consuming countries in the 19th century, restrictions followed, often linked to racial and class policies. In the mid-20th century, international coordination intensified and led to strict policies on cannabis across the world. 

The global policies on cannabis, but also other psychotropic substances, were largely dictated by the attitudes and policies adopted in the United States. In the 1800s, one of the most popular strains of the plant, hemp, was competing effectively in many industries, including textiles, where it represented the biggest competitor to cotton. The outlawing of cannabis by the United States Government tilted the industries in favor of hemp’s competition, namely, cotton and nylon, in which some of the most influential businesses of the time had significant investments. 

Hemp cultivation played a central role in the U.S. in the 18th and 19th centuries. But restrictions on cannabis cultivation, distribution and use began as early as the 1850s, with its inclusion in laws on poisonous substances. A series of restrictive measures were progressively put in place in the years to follow.

It was the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 that in practice outlawed all sale or possession of cannabis in the United States. In 1971, U.S. President Nixon declared the “War on Drugs,” one of the harshest approaches to dealing with psychotropic substances, and signed the Controlled Substances Act into law. This policy classified cannabis alongside heroin and LSD as a Schedule 1 drug, indicating the substance has high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. The ban on cannabis quickly proliferated to other countries due to the U.S.’s prominent role in international bodies and organizations. 

Internationally, restrictions on cannabis were initially introduced under the auspices of the United Nations, following prior restrictions on other substances introduced under its predecessor, the League of Nations.

An increasing number of countries are rethinking their policies toward drugs in general, and cannabis is a champion in this regard.

While earlier treaties only controlled opium, coca and derivatives such as morphine, heroin and cocaine, The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1964 was the first to introduce a global ban on cannabis. To enforce the new policies, international structures of coordinating efforts of countries were introduced and UN agencies were given mandates to monitor these substances.

However, through the late 1990s and the beginning of this century, the global approach toward drugs shifted significantly. Both through policy changes by individual countries, and through change in recommendations by international institutions. The trend around the world has shifted toward a more relaxed policy regarding drug possession, particularly toward cannabis. 

In its 2016 report, the Global Commission on Drug Policy urged states across the globe to re-think their drug policies. Among other things, the report recommends that all member states of the UN move toward the decriminalization of drug possession. 

What are others doing?

An increasing number of countries are rethinking their policies toward drugs in general, and cannabis is a champion in this regard. Policies vary from full legalization for recreational use, as is the case in Uruguay and Canada, to the lenient enforcement of punitive policies that is adapted by many European countries. Accommodating to particular contexts and needs, countries have developed various control and oversight mechanisms to enforce their policies. 

The first country to move toward loosening its drug policy was the Netherlands. In 1972, the Dutch government categorized narcotics into hard and soft drugs based on risks of harm and/or addiction, with cannabis included in the latter category. Accordingly, possession of 30 grams or less was made a misdemeanor. 

While cannabis and other substances remain technically illegal even today, the Dutch have developed a policy of tolerating personal recreational use of cannabis and other lighter drugs. 

Cannabis has been available for recreational use in coffeeshops since 1976. Coffeeshops are only allowed to sell soft drugs, and no more than 5 grams per person per day. They are situated in a legal grey area in which shops are allowed to sell cannabis within the legally tolerated limits, but suppliers are not legally allowed to grow or import it, nor sell it to the coffeeshops. 

In Uruguay, customers have to register with the regulator and then are limited to buying 10 grams a week. In Canada, according to the Cannabis Act, effective since October 17, 2018, adults are legally permitted to possess up to 30 grams of legal cannabis, buy cannabis from licensed retailers and grow up to four cannabis plants per residence for personal use. 

In Portugal, possession of drugs for personal use is an administrative offense and may be punished with a fine or non-pecuniary sanctions for non-addicted users, or non-pecuniary sanctions for addicted users. These are always administrative measures, such as community service or psychosocial therapy, as opposed to detention. In Czech Republic, possession of drugs for private use is a misdemeanor punished by a fine of up to 15,000 CZK (579.91 euros).

Some conditions for which cannabis has been prescribed:

Alzheimer's disease, appetite loss, cancer, Crohn's disease, eating disorders such as anorexia, epilepsy, glaucoma, mental health conditions and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms, pain and wasting syndrome (cachexia).

Another dimension of cannabis is its use for medicinal purposes. While there is significant resistance among health professionals to endorse cannabis prescription for medical conditions, an increasing number of countries have moved toward this direction. While there is still very little scientific data on the long-term effects of cannabis use, there is significant anecdotal evidence that its active compounds (cannabinoids and tetrahydrocannabinol — THC) are effective in treating various medical conditions. 

A large number of diverse countries have legalized the medical use of cannabis. Others have more restrictive laws that only allow the use of certain cannabis-derived pharmaceutical drugs. In the United States, 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized the medical use of cannabis, while it remains illegal at the federal level. 

Our southern neighbor, North Macedonia, legalized medicinal marijuana production and commerce in 2017, and some reports indicate that the country’s industry has attracted hundreds of millions in investment.

Some countries with forms of legal medical cannabis:

Argentina, Germany, Netherlands, Australia, Greece, Norway, Canada, Israel, Peru, Chile, Italy, Poland, Colombia, Jamaica, Romania, Croatia, Lesotho, San Marino, Cyprus, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Turkey, Denmark, Malta, Uruguay, Finland, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Portugal.

So why has Kosovo not moved forward with the shift in policy toward cannabis? Some of the arguments against decriminalization either for recreational or medicinal use in Kosovo include the weak rule of law, poor control and monitoring capacities and corruption and organized crime. 

However, evidence from other countries suggests that moving toward decriminalization of possession for personal use can lead to decreased criminality. Gangs and drug traffickers have developed business models relying on the illegality of the substance; once it is properly regulated instead, the criminals’ source of income and power ceases to persist. 

As for medicinal use, its legalization would have a tremendous positive impact on both agriculture and economic development. The average size of farms in Kosovo is approximately five hectares, which is barely enough for subsistence farming survival — but if planted with cannabis, the farms could increase their earnings from land manifold, due to the comparatively much higher yield. 

While public opinion in Kosovo is not favorable toward marijuana — and certainly not toward other drugs — the current policy is a waste of the already limited resources, with weak results to show beyond fined or jailed teenagers. It might be time to consider whether a different approach to drugs in general, and cannabis specifically, would be more beneficial for the economy and for society at large.

Feature image: Arrita Katona.