Will a New Ruling Turn Out the Lights or Spark Legalization for Spain’s Cannabis Clubs?

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By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Once welcomed as a progressive venue forward for adult-use legalization, Barcelona’s cannabis clubs suddenly find themselves in legal limbo, and possible jeopardy of elimination. A recent court ruling from the regional Catalan High Court has asserted an uncertain future for the clubs, or asociaciones, the majority of which are centred in Barcelona and ostensibly no longer allowed to “promote the consumption, sale or cultivation” of cannabis, for penalty of which they could be shut down at short notice.

With approximately 225 cannabis social clubs in Barcelona and another 500 clubs across the rest of Spain, the clubs are considered a model of decriminalised practise. They have attracted tourism, leading to Barcelona’s being dubbed “the new Amsterdam”; with a lounge bar aesthetic, they offer a more hospitable ambience than the iconic coffeeshops of the Netherlands, with a social element missing from the typical retail dispensaries of the U.S. or Canada.

As a result of the ruling, come September inspectors are due to visit the clubs to assess any negative impact, says Barcelona-based consultant Alex Aller of Legal Weed, and Cannabis Barcelona, a site promoting Barcelona’s cannabis clubs.

“The only thing that we all know for sure is that in September, City Hall will begin inspections,” says Aller, adding that the warning itself raises a legal issue. “These inspections are not within their jurisdiction, so clubs are not obliged to allow the inspection. Some clubs won’t let the inspectors inside until they explain what their intentions are.”

It is a highly confusing scenario, says Aller. “Everything is open to interpretation, and therefore no one truly knows what is going to happen,” he explained. “Even the City Hall doesn’t know exactly what is going to happen. In April they had a meeting with their legal team and the executive team, and the conclusions were that they only want to tackle those who are doing it wrong – and to prevent new clubs from opening. Meanwhile, the police are in favour of the clubs’ operating.” But as Eric Asensio of the Federation of Catalan Cannabis Associations (CATFAC) has asserted, “the majority of associations assume that sooner or later they will be forced to close down.” The quandary leaves clubs feeling precarious.

Spain’s cannabis clubs have a pioneering history as places for enthusiasts (and some medical patients) to find cannabis. The first cannabis association was formed in 1991, and the first club opened in 2001, seeing a huge growth in numbers by the end of the 2010s. In 2019, New Frontier Data was estimating that four million local consumers, and around 6.5-12.5 million tourists, were patronizing cannabis clubs. Accessed by a membership fee of around $10, within the clubs cannabis retails at a starting price of about $5-$6 per gram, (a competitive price in Europe), though since the clubs are supposed to be noncommercial, that may be accompanied by some measure of mystique or simple confusion. Regardless, since the clubs have been accepted as ingredients for a progressive solution to problems associated with illegal drug markets, they did not draw criticism from key drug control bodies such as the INCB or UNODC, and it was long hoped that they would delink cannabis from crime, commercial gain, and other illicit drugs, meanwhile offering quality-control elements  to the venues and the cannabis itself.

As the key cannabis club city, by the early 2010s Barcelona found that criminals had become involved in some clubs, and city leaders subsequently introduced regulations to prevent them from opening within 100-150 meters of schools and playgrounds, mandated doors that prevent passers-by from seeing inside, and adding compulsory smoke extractors. The scene was set in liberal Barcelona to relax those rules further, though in 2017 the Spanish Supreme Court closed a loophole  that had been exercised since the Catalan government had deemed that “private consumption of cannabis by adults … is part of the exercise of the fundamental right to free personal development and freedom of conscience”.

The clubs were feted by reforming organisations across Europe as positive, noncommercial enterprises in the spirit of social engagement. A U.K. advocacy group named Transform Drugs praised the clubs as “private, nonprofit organisations in which cannabis is collectively grown and distributed to registered members. With no profit motive to increase cannabis consumption or initiate new users, the clubs offer a more cautious, public-health-centred alternative to large-scale retail cannabis markets dominated by commercial enterprises.” The Spanish Cannabis Social Club model generated interest in drug policy circles, and the UKCSC (United Kingdom Cannabis Social Clubs National Committee) proposed a similar model for the U.K.

Now the cannabis clubs are balking against the ruling, suggesting that the court has only banned the “promotion” of cannabis, not its consumption. “What happens inside a cannabis club is not promotion, but rather an economic contribution of members in exchange for a service,” said Asensio. CATFAC President Patricia Amiguet hopes that the crisis will serve to kick-start proper legalization. “We’re hoping it can be an opportunity to work together and get regulations in Catalonia,” she said.

Alex Aller argues that the ruling will only serve to benefit the illegal market. “Anything that affects the normal functioning of cannabis clubs will boost the black market,” he explained. “It happened during the first wave of the COVID lockdown when all cannabis clubs were ordered to shut down for more than three months, and the black market took over more than 25% of the consumer market. To this day, that market has not come back to the cannabis clubs. It took over eight years for cannabis clubs to push the black market to extinction, and only three months for the black market to come back.”

Aller argues that legal guarantees need to be in place so that “participants and the cannabis community won’t be harassed by the authorities for claiming the right to consume cannabis in the privacy of the club.”

As for tourists’ using clubs, Aller believes that they will be prove hard to ban. “Barcelona has a large population of second residencies,” says Aller. “These people don’t officially live in Barcelona, but spend more than three months per year here, as does a large population of international students. If you don’t set clear boundaries specifying the legality of members like these, you’re always going to play cat-and-mouse with the police. And the police are tired of doing this.”

Another legal factor, adds Aller, is that the acquisition, possession, and consumption of any drug is legal within the privacy of a private property, provided that the consumer is over 18 years of age and only has it for personal consumption. “A private social club of a nonprofit association is considered private property, so the members of a cannabis club can legally acquire, possess, and consume cannabis in the privacy of the clubhouse provided this is done within a ‘closed’ group of people.” Such language leaves open to interpretation what a “closed group” is, and whether, for example, new members should not be allowed in that definition. A self-regulatory rule that most clubs abide by to avoid cannabis tourism is that new members must wait 15 days from the day that they register to the day that they can acquire cannabis at the club.

Now Barcelona’s local government has asked its legal services how to handle the situation, and as a spokesperson for Barcelona’s City Hall recently said, “Now we will send a letter to all the clubs to inform them of the new situation, and later, we will carry out safety and inspection campaigns. We will see what happens in each case.”