"New Amsterdam" No More? Spain's Cannabis Clubs Fight to Stay Open
But have they become their own worst enemy?
by Tasha Smith
Lead image by Mira Gonzalez
Spain's cannabis social club (CSC) model might make the country appear to be a marijuana mecca, but what the tourist never sees are the legal and financial quagmires that plague these clubs, from police raids and robberies to organized crime and headline-grabbing court cases — not to mention Spain's murky and somewhat draconian drug policies, which penalize cannabis users for possession and public use. Today, the CSCs are under attack, and if the current government gets its way, they'd be wiped out completely. However, the lack of formal regulation means the biggest threat comes from the cannabis clubs that exploit the (admittedly dizzying) system for profit and tarnish the reputation of every other reefer refuge throughout the country.
Spain's first cannabis social clubs emerged in the early 1990s as a political movement that sought to fight for the constitutional rights of cannabis users. One of the primary goals was to provide safe access to quality marijuana, and to protect consumers from the dealing with the black market. Today's CSCs exist on a spectrum, and while two distinct clubs may be located in the same city, chances are their policies and ethics couldn't be more different. At one end is the altruistic cultivator who believes in his or her constitutional right to form an association to grow and share marijuana. At the other is the savvy dealer who sees a cannabis club as a reputable front for black market produce. More recently, the ongoing threat of police raids has forced many legit clubs to stop cultivating on-site and instead buy from the black market, turning the original purpose of the model on its head.
There are exclusive clubs like Joe's Marbella in the south of Spain, where the bud is expensive and the clientele are reputed to be socialites and shady types. The lobby is large with backlit walls, a pool table, and winding staircase. In Barcelona, there are large clubs like the Tresor Cannabis Club that embody an eco-design to attract the bio-conscious, or La Mesa with its funky lounge layout designed to impress professionals and bohemians alike. These flashy types of CSCs are the reason Barcelona has earned the title of Europe's "New Amsterdam." A more common kind of club, however, is one that caters to a local community of marijuana lovers, as well as a network of a given club owner's friends.
Without addresses listed online, it's difficult to find these clubs, as they're typically located on a quiet side street or on the outskirts of town. They never have signage, as advertising these sort of venues is legally restricted. From the outside, the club may even look abandoned. The main door usually leads to a lobby, followed by a second door that opens into a hidden herb haven. Inside, high-tech ventilation systems crisscross the ceiling to suck up odors and smoke, while low lighting makes the atmosphere resemble a speakeasy from of a bygone-era. The dispensary will typically have a selection of up to fifteen different flower strains, as well as hash, oil, waxes, shatter, distillates, isolates, creams, salves, and more — available to card-carrying members only.
The ongoing threat of police raids has forced many legit clubs to stop cultivating on-site and instead buy from the black market, turning the original purpose of the CSC model on its head.
Yes, members pay for the cannabis, but the idea is that the club cultivates plants for its members' personal use, and is also responsible for distributing cannabis to them on a weekly basis. According to the Buenas Practicas, a set of guidelines laid out by the Catalonian Federation of Cannabis Associations (CatFac) — and the closest thing the CSCs have to a set of formal rules — a member can receive up to three grams per day from a single club, and up to 25 grams of marijuana per week. Putting a limit on the quantity of cannabis a user can acquire eliminates the risk of members selling CSC produce to a third party. Of all the guidelines, the most important is that clubs operate as nonprofits, using their earnings to cover running costs and maintain low prices. The difference in price-per-gram is the most obvious way to spot an altruistic club versus one that's profit-driven.
"If we can cover costs and charge members €1 per gram, we do it because it's for us, we're cultivating the marijuana for us," explains Goyo Sancho Marchena, president of a cannabis association in Urretxu, Basque Country, north of Spain. "But typically we charge around €5 per gram. The first year, a member pays €60 for the membership fee; the second year they pay €30, but after that they're just paying for what they consume. We also host events to educate the members on the therapeutic uses of marijuana, though we don't see any difference between medical and recreational use of cannabis. For us, all marijuana use is therapeutic. All clubs host events but what changes is the intention. We're serving a community. [Profit-driven clubs] are promoting a brand." The average price at a Barcelona club is approximately €10 per gram.
A selection of flower at the Stargrass BCN club in Barcelona, photo by the author
How Did the CSCs Emerge?
When Spain signed the United Nations' Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs in 1966, the production and supply of cannabis became illegal, punishable under the country's Penal Code. For that reason, no club sells cannabis; rather they share produce that's been cultivated for personal use amongst friends. This idea of "shared consumption" dates back to the 1970s when Spain's Supreme Court established jurisprudence for drug consumption and possession as a non-criminal activity, as long as the drugs were shared for compassionate reasons and not for profit. However, no regulations were established for decriminalization, leaving interpretation of the ruling open to the discretion of police and judges.
This made for a very unstable situation, which came to a head in 1992 when the government passed the Law on the Protection of the Citizens' Security. The new law sanctioned fines of up to €30,000 for anyone caught consuming drugs in a public places, which before then was not treated as a punishable crime. In response, activists set up the Ramón Sanchez Association for the Study of Cannabis (ARSEC) in 1993, which was the country's first ever cannabis association and official activist group. In a 1994 incident now known as The Catalan Breach, ARSEC planted 200 marijuana plants, which the police then confiscated. Even though the founding members of the group were arrested and later charged, their bold move inspired more activists to take action.
"In the early days, it was a political movement... Back then, the founders of clubs were activists fighting against prohibition."
A few years later, the Kalamudia Association, a group of Bilbao-based cannabis activists, planted 600 marijuana plants to challenge the law — not once, but twice. When they were able to harvest both crops (the second time on national TV), it gave the movement a boost of confidence. A report commissioned by the Andalusian regional government was another factor that helped the CSC model take shape. Within, its authors describe "centers that are not open to an indiscriminate public," but are "places of private consumption amongst regular users" that control "access" to cannabis. Although the report was not legally binding, its concepts were adopted by the movement and led to the opening of the Barcelona's Tasters Club in 2001, the first club to offer members a space to smoke.
"In the early days, it was a political movement," explains Patty Amiguet, who opened a club seven years ago in Barcelona, and is a spokesperson for ConFAC, Spain's national Federation of Cannabis Associations. "Back then, the founders of clubs were activists fighting against prohibition. It wasn't necessary to get a license, but to set up a club the right way did involve a ton of mandatory paperwork." Despite the bureaucratic headache of opening a club, the CSC scene began thriving.
Today, there's an estimated 800 clubs spread throughout the country, with 500 of those in Catalonia, and 300 in Barcelona. By 2012, it was clear that Barcelona had potential to replace Amsterdam as Europe's next cannabis capital, but tensions between regulation and commercialization were starting to become a serious issue in Spain. Throughout their short history, the CSCs have been battling the legal system to establish parameters for their existence. The explosion of clubs from 2012 to 2015 unsurprisingly coincided with an increase in police raids and court cases. Since Spain introduced its controversial Gag Law in 2015, which subjects users to fines of up to €30,000 for carrying or using marijuana in public, fines doled out for cannabis possession have skyrocketed.
Image by Mira Gonzalez
Attempts to Regulate the CSCs
A handful of activists and lawyers are fighting to establish clear regulations that protect clubs, as they see marijuana cultivation for personal use as a fundamental right. Their goal is not only to clarify the regulatory environment for the CSCs, but also challenge Spain's harsh drug policies.
The fight is two-pronged, taking place simultaneously at political and judicial levels. At the political level, a series of legal initiatives over the last four years have managed to squeeze through some tentative laws. For example, the province of Navarra in the north of Spain was the first to introduce a legal framework for cannabis social clubs, when the regional government approved the Navarra Law in 2014. However, this law was suspended by the Supreme Court in 2015, and annulled by the Constitutional Court in 2017.
A more ambitious project called La Rose Verde was also launched in 2014, spearheaded by a group of cannabis activists in Barcelona. They collected 67,500 signatures to petition the local parliament to approve their proposal for CSC regulation in Catalonia, which the Catalonian parliament subsequently did in June 2017. It was a moment of victory and celebration for the CSCs, one that gave hope to clubs in the rest of Spain's regions. However, that hope was swiftly crushed four months later in October, after Catalonia's failed attempt to gain independence from Spain.
In 2016, the Basque Country's regional government proposed its own initiative, the Basque Law, which was intended to provide comprehensive care for drug addicts, be they addicted to recreational or prescription drugs. Article 83 is an addition to the law, which lays out conditions for cannabis clubs, stating that clubs are obliged to collaborate with local health authorities to encourage the responsible use of cannabis to minimize substance abuse and other negative social risks. Though the law was immediately appealed and suspended by federal government, two years later in 2018, the Constitutional Court passed a judgment upholding Article 83 and declaring it in line with the Constitution. With this ruling, the Court put the onus on clubs to comply with health authority guidelines, but did nothing to resolve questions about the legal status of CSCs.
At the judicial level, three CSCs have played key roles in the development of a regulatory framework for the club scene. The first is the Pannagh Association, set up in 2003 by Martín Barriuso and colleagues, and the second is the Ebers Association; both are based in Bilbao, in the north of Spain. The third is Three Monkeys, based in Barcelona. The Pannagh club was first raided in 2005, but the landmark case was acquitted in 2007 and 17 kilograms of marijuana were returned to the club. At the time, this was a boost to the movement, and led to a CSC boom in the following years. In 2011, however, Pannagh, Ebers, and Three Monkeys were raided, had their plants seized, and the founding members were arrested. These court cases would take seven years to reach a final verdict, going all the way to the Constitutional Court while highlighting the injustices of the Spanish judicial system in the process.
"Between 2015 and 2016, there were 189,947 fines for possession of marijuana in Spain, which is 346 fines per day, and adds up to €93 million a year in revenue for the police administration."
2015 was a bad year. The Supreme Court issued its first round of verdicts for the defendants, rejecting the criminal court's acquittal and ruling that all three clubs did not meet the standard of "not punishable" clubs and could thus be charged under the criminal code. The prosecution called for four-and-a-half years of jail time, plus an additional one-and-a-half years for being part of a "criminal" gang. The founders of Pannagh received fines of €250,000. The case was televised on national TV to further shame the clubs. Counsel for Pannagh argued that the court's case was full of errors and contradictions, with Barriuso saying, "It was not proven that we were promoting anything illegal." The clubs appealed the decision, and two and a half years later, in December 2017, the Constitutional Court issued another damaging blow to the movement.
In its first round of decisions, the Court upheld the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that classed the clubs' activities as criminal. This ruling effectively deemed all CSCs illegal. The following day the Navarra Law was rendered null and void. Writing for Sensi Seeds blog, Barriuso criticized the Constitutional Court for ending "a decades-long debate," and opting for an "authoritarian" response because they were not willing to confront the "ambiguity" in Spain's Penal Code for fear it might lead to "greater tolerance." For a while the situation looked bleak, until March 2018 when the Court issued its second round of decisions and annulled the case, sending it back to the Supreme Court to give the founders the chance of a fair hearing in the lower court.
In a press release issued after the decision, Hector Brotons, counsel for Pannagh, called attention to how the legal vacuum in which CSCs are forced to operate puts thousands of cannabis users at risk on the street. The most stringent evidence of this is Spain's 2015 Gag Law, which according to Bernardo Soriano, a Madrid-based cannabis lawyer, is "the most violated law ever introduced." According to No Somos Delito (We're Not Criminals), an activist group fighting for reform of Spain's Penal Code, "between 2015 and 2016, there were 189,947 fines for possession of marijuana in Spain, which is 346 fines per day, and adds up to €93 million a year in revenue for the police administration."
The inside of the Organic Cannabis Club in Marbella before it was closed
The Organic Cannabis Club in Marbella after it was closed
Market Forces and More Police Raids
The reality is the CSCs have grown beyond the control of activists and into a thriving market, a situation that the years of legal wrangling have inadvertently encouraged. "The problem is all the bureaucracy has turned the tables on us," says Amiguet of ConFAC. "Whereas in the past, opening a cannabis club was a reflection of a person's political values, now, it's about money. The cost of opening a club is so high today, the priorities of founders have changed. Getting a return on their investment is more important than the political fight."
What does it take to open a club today? A large chunk of the investment goes into the design, and making sure the building is up to spec. The costs begin when putting together the application for a license, which involves applying first to the local government and then the state's Ministry of Interior. The application form costs €40, but is convoluted and impossible to do without the help of a lawyer; legal fees are typically around €6,000.
"The first time I sent my application to the Ministry, they accused me of being a narco-trafficker," says Paco Pozo, who opened Canna Patio in Tarifa, a town in the south of Spain, in 2017. "This was before I even had any members. Their immediate response was to accuse me of being a drug dealer."
Dominique Geerlings, founder of Organic Cannabis Club in Marbella was forced to get creative in order to convince the registry to issue her license in 2013. "They refused me for a year until I found a notice online announcing the Junta's [local government] investment in a medical marijuana research facility. They couldn't refuse me then," she says. Another club, La Fuma in Seville, had to wade through two years of paperwork before their license application was cleared in 2015.
Stargrass BCN is a cannabis club in Barcelona that opened in 2016. They applied for their license in July of that year and received it in November. "The biggest concerns were the building specifications and location," says Alessandro Perilli, one of the founders. "For example, you have to show that the [ventilation] system eliminates all smoke and smells, and the entrance is monitored so non-members can't easily gain access. We hired a real estate agent to find the right place, so that cut out a lot of legwork, but it's a process and the costs add up quickly."
"Whereas in the past, opening a cannabis club was a reflection of a person's political values, now, it's about money. The cost of opening a club is so high today, the priorities of founders have changed. Getting a return on their investment is more important than the political fight."
How easy it is to run a club can vary from region to region, too. In the three-and-a-half years since it opened, La Fuma has had no problems and no visits from police — besides when the club first opened and authorities came to check that its papers were in order. Stargrass BCN had a similar visit when it opened, but a building inspector also showed up six months ago to check that the premises was up to code. Over a period of five years, the Organic Cannabis Club was raided seven times, robbed four times, and moved three times. The last raid took place in March 2018, and the club is now closed.
"How easy it is to run a club depends on who's in government," explains Geerlings. "When I first came to Marbella in 2014, the local government was a socialist coalition, and there were seven clubs here. Since the PP – Spain's conservative Party Popular – came back into government, one-by-one all the clubs have been closed. There are no clubs left in Marbella now." At the time of writing, Joe's Marbella is the only remaining club in Marbella; to get in, you must know a current member.
"Often, if the city wants to close a club, they'll cite the establishment for ventilation or other code violations," explains Russ Hudson, a cannabis consultant who has been working with Barcelona clubs since 2013. "However, if the police believe that there is a large amount of cannabis on the premises, they might attempt to obtain a warrant – but are often denied by judges – to search and seize the product. Clubs are cited and shut down for code violations, or breaking the law, such as recruiting members on the street, providing products to minors, or operating without a license."
When police find a reason, they take swift action. In 2014, there was a crackdown on touting for members on the streets of Barcelona, which led to the closure of clubs and the incarceration of some club founders. In 2016, a club in Barcelona with 16,000 members was closed for selling candy to tourists. In March 2018, the Organic Cannabis Club along with another club in Benalmadena were raided and shut. In April, La Mesa, a club in Seville was raided and two of its founders were arrested. In both cases, neighbors complained about strong smells of marijuana. When the founders of a club end up in court, they can be charged with crimes against public health, which carries a short prison sentence and fine, or if there is evidence of distribution, the prosecution will push for a tougher charge of narco-trafficking and a heavier sentences of four years, as well as fines in the hundreds of thousands.
Beatriz Macho, a cannabis lawyer and spokesperson for the Spain's Federation of Cannabis Associations (ConFAC) says the situation in Madrid is grim: "In the last two years many long-established clubs have been shut: Rama, Friends, Smoke & Cherry, High Class, Cannopia — all gone. In the last month, Morgan, Mendocino, and Gaoni have been shut. The founders of those clubs are facing criminal charges of illegal association and organized crime and could face up to nine years if convicted. Such a harsh outcome is unlikely, but it shows how determined the judiciary is to rid Madrid of its cannabis associations."
The exterior of Joe's Marbella in the South of Spain
Grow Ops and Next Steps
"Clubs don't care about cultivation anymore. Today, they are two separate worlds, and most have business goals driven by profit," explains Barriuso from the office of AMEC, Madrid's first-ever cannabis association, which opened in 1994. It's a ramshackle room with mismatched furniture that belies its revolutionary intent. According to Barriuso, these "business goals" have spurred the growth of secret marijuana grow ops all over the country.
"What we have in Spain now is a network of suppliers who carefully and quietly produce cannabis and deliver it to the clubs," says Hudson, the cannabis consultant. He added that "some clubs grow a few strains and source the remainder on the supplier network, some source all of their materials from the supplier network. But very few clubs produce all of their own cannabis, especially in Barcelona. The lack of regulation has literally forced otherwise white or grey market clubs to participate in the black market."
As a result, local governments and authorities are putting pressure on the federal government to put some sort of regulation in place. As Soriano, the Madrid lawyer, explains: "To date, fourteen of the sixteen regional parliaments have petitioned the government to hold a commission on the issue of cannabis legalization, but their requests are falling on deaf ears."
"It's up to us to convince the rest of society and the electorate. In the end, it's the people who decide the values of government."
Activist groups continue to grow, as well. One lobby group, Regulación Responsable has joined forces with the Spanish Observatory for Medicinal Cannabis — a medical marijuana research facility led by world-renowned doctors — to have access to the most current scientific research. Regulación Responsable has proposed a program called "The Five Pillars of Cannabis," in which it lays out provisions for the legalization of cannabis trade in Spain; however it's regarded as too ambitious by some activists. "There's no doubt it contains good ideas, but who's going to pay for its implementation?" says Marchena, the cannabis association president from the Basque Country.
More activist groups such as ConFAC, Mujeres Cannabicas, No Somos Delito, European Coalition for Political Justice, and the European Observatory for Cannabis Cultivation and Consumption are also working on proposals for legislative reform and the implementation of a nationwide regulatory framework for CSCs and drug policy in Spain. However, until Spain's federal government makes reform a priority, these proposals are speculative. But that may change in the near future. In May 2018, Spain's ruling Party Popular was ousted due to a corruption scandal, and replaced with a coalition headed by the socialist party PSOE. It's expected that elections will be held in the next twelve months, which may enable a more positive environment for the CSCs, as socialist parties such as Ciudadanos and Podemos support legislative reform in favor of marijuana legalization.
"The cannabis movement has been through a lot, and today we know exactly what we want," says Amiguet. "It's up to us to convince the rest of society and the electorate. In the end, it's the people who decide the values of government." That outcome is not unrealistic. A 2014 Eurobarometer poll found that 47% of Spaniards between the ages of 16 and 24 were in favor of legalization, a 12-point increase from 2011. According to a 2015 Spain Drug Report, 9.5% of the population had used cannabis in the last 12 months, making it the most used illegal substance in the country.
Bad hash purchased in a Madrid cannabis social club, photo courtesy of the author
Safe Access to Quality Cannabis
Despite garnering a reputation as the "New Amsterdam," in reality the CSCs exist on a legal shoestring that could be cut at any moment by the government. As long as marijuana remains illegal in Spain, and a lack of regulation forces clubs to exist in a legal vacuum, the CSC model is at risk.
Killing all the clubs with a broad policy change would likely be met with public outrage, so for now, raids on individual clubs serve as a sort of guerilla tactic by the police to scare off anyone who might be tempted into the industry by profit. Not that it works. As soon as one closes, another opens — each new club less attached to the original, activism-minded model.
This writer recently visited Madrid where I was on deadline for an article, and in need of a space to write and smoke. So I did what most smokers in a new city do, and checked Weedmaps. After a few failed attempts, I found an open club that was willing to let me in. Tucked away on a side street, it was a large room with blue-gray concrete walls, the requisite ventilation system, and no décor besides a flatscreen in the corner playing Arabian pop music. It hadn't been open that long, and the spot had the atmosphere of a cold storage unit. The polite budtender took my passport details, €5 membership fee, and invited me to procure whatever I liked — exactly the kind of behavior that's not allowed, and often leads to shut-downs.
The hash was low-grade and I regretted buying it – not worth the €10 for a crummy gram. As I sat there smoking bad pollen and writing, I watched many customers come and go, and felt conflicted. While I was grateful to gain easy access to the club and have a cannabis-friendly space to work, I was also annoyed that this club was so flagrantly breaking the rules. It's these types of CSCs that are destroying the cooperative model by ensuring cannabis retains its criminal connections, as well as the social stigma that goes with it. Let's hope that regulations are eventually put in place that adhere to the CSCs original mission: safe access to quality cannabis. When that happens, Spain will finally live up to its reputation as a true marijuana mecca
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