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Hundreds of cannabis workers fall ill in Albanian village

By Benet Koleka

TIRANA (Reuters) - Doctors in Albania say hundreds of people have fallen ill from harvesting cannabis in a lawless region that for years has been out of bounds to police, Albanian media reported on Friday.

The hospital in the southern city of Gjirokaster said a total of 700 have sought treatment since June for the effects of planting, harvesting, pressing and packing the cannabis in the village of Lazarat.

"In the last two months about seven to eight people arrive in the emergency ward each day and many more have come earlier with disorders from hashish," Gjirokaster doctor Hysni Lluka told Top Channel television.

Some 2,000 people, including poor Roma who have set up a camp near Lazarat, have been working for months in the cannabis fields, where producers pay eight euros per 10 kilos of processed drug.

The illegal practice has flourished in Lazarat over two decades of turbulent transition in Albania since the end of hardline communist rule.

Lazarat has become a byword for lawlessness in Albania, with cannabis growers brazen enough to shoot at police officers who venture near their fields.

Aerial pictures suggest some 60 hectares have been cultivated in Lazarat with 300,000 cannabis plants, capable of yielding 500 metric tons (551.156 ton) or half the total cannabis production in Albania.

Lluka, the doctor, said women and teenagers, who account for some 40 percent of those working in Lazarat, had sought help for bouts of vomiting, stomach pain, irregular heart beats and high blood pressure. Last week one patient came in a critical state.

Lazarat is a stronghold of the Democratic Party, which was in power for eight years before losing a June election to the Socialist Party. The Democrats promised to tackle Albania's cannabis problem but police shied away from striking Lazarat.

Artan Didi, the new director of police appointed by the Socialists, has said the police will no longer "back down to Lazarat".

The U.S. State Department's international narcotics control report for 2013 listed Albania as a transit and destination country for cannabis, heroin and cocaine.

Authorities seized more than 21 tons of cannabis in 2012, double the amount of the previous year, it said, although that could reflect increased production.

(Reporting by Benet Koleka Editing by Matt Robinson)

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