The illegal cultivation of marijuana is booming in southern Bulgaria - cannabis is said to thrive in the temperate climate. Even pensioners are cashing in to boost their pensions.
Growing marijuana may be illegal, but it's big business
There's a new trend in southern Bulgaria: instead of growing tomatoes in the back garden, many people are planting cannabis instead.
In the tiny village of Dolna Ribnitza near the border with Greece, police recently seized 1.5 tons of cannabis after being given a tip-off. Behind a high fence, housed in three greenhouses covering an area of about 2,000 square meters (21,528 square feet), pensioners Stefan and Slavka Trentschevi were growing marijuana. Slavka told the police that she needed the money for a hip operation.
"I haven't killed anyone, nor have I robbed anyone. I haven't committed a crime," she said.
The drug is often sold on to markets in Greece
It's well known in the village that there are numerous cannabis plantations in the nearby woodlands. The residents smile benignly and say the drug is just as widely grown as tomatoes, but with one crucial difference: with cannabis, you earn more money.
The flowers and leaves of a hemp plant will give you about 200 to 500 grams (7 to 17 ounces) of dried marijuana. Over 1,000 joints can be made from 1 kilo.
People pay up to 30 leva (15 euros/$21) per gram on the black market. That gives an impressive end price of 15,000 euros per kilo.
In the past few years police have been uncovering numerous secret, often difficult-to-access sites where the plants are being grown.
"This is a criminal operation that we've been observing for some time," explains Bojko Dunkin, chief of police in the southwestern Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad.
This year, 118 cannabis plants were registered in the district. In 42 cases, the perpetrators were already known to the police. New cannabis plantations are uncovered almost daily.
Apart from the temperate climate, there's another explanation for the boom. Blagoevgrad is not far from the major economic and tourist hub of Thessaloniki in Greece and the Bulgarian capital Sofia, both of which are prime marijuana markets.
Cannabis from grandma and grandpa
Growing vegetables doesn't bring much extra income
Stefan and Slavka Trentschevi are not alone. Increasingly, it's older people who are resorting to cannabis gardens, in an attempt to boost their miserly pensions.
Police chief Dunkin is speechless. "They can't be growing cannabis because of poverty! Here in this region people rely on growing vegetables." But you can't sell a kilo of vegetables for a five-figure sum.
Dunkin says in most cases, the pensioners are only a link in a well-organized criminal chain of producers, suppliers and sellers.
He says older people take the blame so the real criminals get away without being punished.
"Often standing behind the old people is a grandchild or a cousin. The elders sacrifice themselves for their relatives. Elderly people are also brought before the court. If they are taking part in criminal activity, then they are aware of what they're doing. That's why they also have to carry the consequences," Dunkin explained.
Author: Yordanka Yordanova / ji
Editor: Martin Kuebler