Tirana — Albania, often accused of being a transit spot for drugs destined for Western Europe, is increasingly becoming a country of consumption, providing authorities with a tough new challenge.
"The consumption of drugs has seen a worrying rise, particularly among young people," said Albanian Health Minister Anila Godo.
The use of illegal substances such as ecstasy or other amphetamines was of particular concern, the minister told AFP.
"Some products are readily available in pharmacies, which can then be easily modified by drug addicts for their own use," said Godo, stressing this represented a "real challenge for the whole of society."
Albania lies on the Balkans trafficking route used by organised crime gangs to smuggle drugs, arms and people into Europe from the Far East, Africa and the Middle East.
Its health ministry says there are now between 40,000 and 60,000 addicts in the country of 3.1 million inhabitants, up from an estimated 5,000 in 1995.
At least 70 people have died from overdoses since 1995, but for experts the true number of deaths caused by illicit drugs is much higher.
"The number of deaths is underestimated and should also take into account all deaths caused indirectly by the use of drugs, such as AIDS, violence, accidents, suicides," said health department chief Sokol Morina.
The drug problem was made worse in Albania by the magnitude of change it has seen since the collapse of its isolated communist regime in the early 1990s.
Albania’s demographic and socio-economic situation have since altered dramatically, with a tide of people moving from rural areas to cities, and unemployment rising.
Struggling with the demands of capitalism, many farmers who remained on their land began producing cannabis as a new source of income, said Morina.
International experts estimated a few years ago that the production of cannabis in Albania was up to 150 tonnes per year.
Last year, security services destroyed some 145,175 marijuana plants in the country. And only last week, police made a spectacular bonfire near Tirana out of some 28 kilograms (about 62 pounds) of heroin, four kilograms of ecstasy and more than seven kilograms of cocaine, all intercepted in recent operations.
Sixty-five kilograms of heroin from Kosovo and Macedonia were also seized in 2008, according to police.
But Luciano Gialdi, of the Emanuel non-governmental organisation set up to help addicts, predicted the situation would only worsen.
He described as "alarming" the potential impact of cocaine, a drug so far little-used in the country.
"Soon the consumption (of cocaine) will increase due to the saturation of markets in producing countries," Gialdi predicted.
According to recent surveys, 10-12 percent of students said they had taken drugs and more than three percent reported regular consumption.
"It’s not difficult to obtain drugs. There are vendors near schools, as well as buyers, even if prices are high," said a Tirana high school pupil who only identified herself as Ina.
A block of hashish sells for 200 leks (1.50 euros, 2.10 dollars), a dose of heroin 3,000 leks (22.50 euros, 32 dollars) and cocaine 7,000 leks (about 50 euros, 70 dollars).
But a buyer can sometimes also obtain a dose for free "because the dealers are interested in the consumer of tomorrow,” said Gialdi.
The head of the narcotics department of the Albanian police, Sokol Selfollari, said that to combat the problem, controls have been stepped up in the vicinity of schools.
But he is particularly concerned about the lack of infrastructure for the rehabilitation of addicts.
According to Albanian health authorities, the country only has a total of 12 beds dedicated to treating drug addicts.