March to Athens
Day 137-LXIII, Πρέβεζα.
Preveza, March 23
After the decline of the ancient town of Nicopolis, Preveza was founded in the middle ages on the tip of this peninsula. The town has been under the dominion of the Turks and the Venetians for most of its history.
During her golden age, Venice ruled over the long string of Dalmatian and Greek islands, that goes all the way from the Adriatic to Cyprus, passing by the Ionian and the Aegean seas. Preveza was one of her commercial outposts when the republic was liquidated by Napoleon during his first Italian campaign.
After Bonaparte made his peace with the Austrians, the town came under the rule of the French. It was occupied by a small garrison of grenadiers, and the revolutionary ideas they brought with them were well received by the local population.
While Napoleon himself was busy ‘harvesting glory’ in Egypt and Palestine, the garrison of Preveza was attacked by the Albanian warlord Ali Pasha.
Ali Pasha ruled over a semi-independent Ottoman satrapy that included most of modern day Albania, Macedonia, and northern Greece. He held court in the inland city of Ioannina, and he was famous for his cruelty.
When he took Preveza, he massacred the French and a large part of the population that had sympathised with them. Many Greeks managed to flee to the hills. They were promised to be spared if they returned. But when they did, the promise was forgotten and Ali Pasha had them slaughtered anyway. Together with the French revolutionary ideas, it would inspire the nationalists to rise up against the Turks two decades later.
Today you don’t find much that reminds you of the past here in Preveza. It’s a modern town that lives from tourism, a town that has sold its soul to the big brands and the banks.
It’s one of the things I noticed during this first week in Greece. In the villages we passed, we hardly found any historical centres like we did in Italy. Most of the buildings are of recent construction, and those who aren’t have been thoroughly polished to look like new.
There are other things. For one, I haven’t seen any visible traces of misery yet. Nothing like the scenes we witnessed in the townships of Naples. If I hadn’t heard the stories or the numbers, I’d say that this part of Greece is a wealthy western style nation.
For two, there’s the discrepancy between the theory and the practice of the law.
Like everywhere in Europe, it’s obligatory to wear a helmet on a scooter. But here, like in many places in the south of Italy, hardly anyone does. They risk big fines, but the police close an eye on them.
The same goes for smoking in bars. In every bar you will find the usual signs that prohibit smoking. There are no ashtrays on the tables. But when you light up a cigarette, they will bring you one without saying a word. The fact is that many people smoke in Greece. When the European laws were implemented, the police have tried to enforce them. But when the officers entered a bar where dozens of people were smoking, they were simply kicked out and didn’t return.
On the other hand the Greek police are fanatical in the persecution of cannabis users.
Ever since we arrived, an informal Weed commission has been active to find the necessary substances for a recreational smoke. In Italy or in Spain, despite crazy legislation, it’s no problem at all. But here it is. People are absolutely terrified to be caught with even the smallest quantity of cannabis. And police are always on the look out to find some.
Yesterday evening many local youngsters joined our group, they brought wine and beer. Some of them brought a bit of grass, and while they were rolling with the utmost prudence they explained the situation.
There is no shortage of good weed here in Greece. With all the wild mountains, you can imagine that harvests are rich every time the season comes around. And indeed, most of the Greeks smoke pot, so they say, but they don’t dare to carry it around.
If you get caught with half a gram, you will be taken to court. You will be fined half a month’s wage, and apart from that you will be forced to hire a lawyer which will cost you double the amount of the fine.
So it’s not just a case of applying the law. “It goes much deeper than that. It’s big business.”
The majority of cases brought before Greek judges have to do with small ‘infringements’ like the possession of grass. For the state it’s the perfect excuse for oppression. They cannot arrest or enjail people for their opinions, so they resort to the phantomatical ‘war on drugs’ to intimidate citizens and violate their privacy, knowing well that most people – police included – enjoy their occasional joint.
The prohibition of hemp is completely illegitimate. It’s a plant that has benefited the human race for thousands of years. It has served to produce high quality clothes, paper, ropes, sails, oil and hundreds of other useful products. It could be the backbone of a sustainable economy. During the 1930s it was outlawed mainly to make way for synthetic products based on petroleum. The whole ‘drug’ story was only a pretext. As a side effect, it allowed authorities to criminalise large parts of the population, especially the ethnic minorities, and to create an immense business around products that would hardly have a monetary value in a real free market economy.
Anyone who speaks of human rights and personal liberty can only be in favour of cannabis re-legalisation. Otherwise he or she is a lurid hypocrite. A plant, being a gift of nature, can never be outlawed. Growing and possessing any herbal substance is more than a human right. It’s a natural right, as self-evident as they get.
I’m sure that future post-revolutionary generations will look back at the ‘war on drugs’ with the same horrified wonder with which we look back on the witch hunts of early modern times.