Following on from our recent blog post explaining the ambiguous legal status of Spain’s cannabis social clubs, Seedsman spoke to two leading activists about the current state of play in the campaign to achieve legal regulation for marijuana. With the incumbent government containing factions that have categorically positioned themselves in favour of creating a framework for doing so, the possibility of change has become a legitimate talking point in Spain. Paradoxically, though, the current administration is yet to make any amendments to the draconian laws imposed by the previous government, which continue to result in the criminalisation of cannabis social clubs.
This coming January sees the current parliament enter its second year, and certain politicians have already stated their intention to force the cannabis issue to the top of the political agenda. Whether or not this can be achieved, however, will depend on the whims of prime minister Pedro Sanchez and his Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).
How Do Things Currently Stand?
When people talk about the “Spanish model” of marijuana regulation, they are generally referring to the cannabis social club system, whereby users are able to access their weed via private members’ clubs. “This is a model that grew organically over a period of about 20 years despite not being legally regulated,” explains Òscar Parés, deputy director of the International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS), a Barcelona-based non-profit organisation dedicated to facilitating the integration of psychoactive plants into society.
“Up until about 2015, anyone who went to court [for their involvement in a cannabis club] would either win or have their case thrown out, as they were able to prove that they weren’t trafficking because they weren’t making any profit and were part of a registered association.”
“But in 2013, under the Popular Party’s government, prosecutors were instructed to start charging those accused of running cannabis clubs with the much more serious crime of belonging to an organised criminal organisation.”
“So from 2015, we had people dropping like flies, accused with this serious crime and sentenced to five years in prison or given fines of up to a million euros.”
Clearly, then, the outlook for Spain’s cannabis social clubs has been somewhat bleak for the past few years, yet a change of government in 2019 raised the possibility of a significantly brighter future. Out went the Popular Party and in came a new coalition led by Sanchez’s PSOE and backed up by Podemos, a left-wing party that supports the legal regulation of cannabis.
New Regime, New Possibilities?
Eric Asensio from the Catalan Federation of Cannabis Associations (CatFAC) says that “this is the first time in Spanish history that we have a party within the government that stands in favour of regulating cannabis. So if ever there were a possibility of this happening, it’s now.”
“The problem is that the other parties are not willing to rise to the challenge of putting this debate to the public.”
In response, both ICEERS and CatFAC are currently working with Podemos and other parliamentary groups in order to move this debate forwards and bring it to the political fore. “Right now we are generating material and information that these parliamentary groups have requested in order to help them build their arguments,” explains Asensio.
This is important because, according to an Open Society Foundations report co-authored by Parés in 2015[i], a general lack of empirical evidence on cannabis social clubs has historically made it extremely difficult to demonstrate their benefits or generate any meaningful discussion on the issue. This, in turn, is due to a lack of any sort of regulatory framework for these clubs, which tend to exist in isolation rather than as part of an integrated network.
Federations like CatFAC, however, represent a potential solution to this issue, by uniting large numbers of clubs into one body, thereby homogenising their operating methods and enabling large-scale data collection. “Right now we are creating a database to show how many members the clubs have, how much these people consume and other information that we are amalgamating into a document so that the advantages and disadvantages of these clubs can be demonstrated and debated.”
“We are joining forces in order to pressure the government, and the more material and information we can gather from clubs all around Spain the easier it will be to generate change.”
In this way, the argument for the regulation of cannabis social clubs is being built. For instance, Parés recently co-authored a study that appeared in the Journal of Drug Issues, which found that belonging to a cannabis social club does not increase cannabis use while also demonstrating the positive impacts that these clubs have on members’ health and general well-being[ii].
It’s becoming increasingly clear that cannabis social clubs bring numerous benefits to their members and to society as a whole, whether by providing access to harm reduction programmes or by countering the influence of grey-market drug dealers. Anticipating a forthcoming change in public opinion, Podemos contracted ICEERS to draw up a plan for the legal regulation of cannabis in Spain back in 2018.
“We came up with a powerful blueprint that covered cannabis clubs, commercial sale, medical use and self-cultivation. In other words a holistic law for the regulation of cannabis in Spain,” explains Parés. “This law needs to be passed by the end of 2021, or it will probably not get passed at all.”
A year into the current administration, however, no steps have been taken to implement this law or to end the repressive measures introduced by the previous government.
“There’s no indication that this is near the top of the agenda,” Parés continues. “Just a few weeks ago [Podemos leader and Spanish deputy prime minister] Pablo Iglesias made a declaration stating his support [for the proposed new law], but Pedro Sanchez laughed in his face when he tried to raise it with him.”
For Parés, the main stumbling block is the nature of Spain’s democracy, which allows parties like the PSOE to be ruled by a small number of elites who simply ignore the will of the people. In spite of this, he and his organisation remain determined to force the cannabis issue in parliament.
“During a recent ICEERS conference on medical cannabis – called CANNABMED – we interviewed Lucia Muñoz, the person within Podemos who deals directly with cannabis. She said that the party hopes to open the debate on this issue soon, but that they expect it to be a complicated process.”
Somewhat less pessimistically, Asensio says that “within parliament there is a conservative majority, but the truth is that this majority is open to talking about regulating cannabis.”
“The problem as we see it is that cannabis regulation is a very broad issue. It covers so many different aspects, like commercial sale, medical use and home growing, so perhaps it’s unlikely that all of these facets will be approved by one administration.”
“But we believe that some of our demands do have a chance of being included in the parliamentary debate. So we’re focusing only on medical cannabis and the cannabis social club model,” he says.
Thus, CatFAC have chosen to be slightly less ambitious than ICEERS with regard to their proposals, in the belief that this will increase their chances of success. “We’ve decided to take the middle road, which doesn’t necessarily include everything we’d like to achieve. We think that this is going to be the first step towards full cannabis regulation, and it’s much better this way than to simply not advance at all.”
While this position may seem a little unaspiring to some, Asensio says that his federation adopted this approach only after recognising the improbability of succeeding with more radical demands. “Our initial strategy was to push for full regulation, but both the public debate and our meetings with various political parties showed us that this would be very difficult to achieve in one go,” he says.
“We’d like to regulate other aspects like commercial sales, but realistically that is something that will have to come later.”
In recent weeks, Podemos has once again publicly stated its intention to push for cannabis regulation during the second half of the current parliament. The subject of marijuana is therefore very much on the political table, and now it’s up to the PSOE to listen to the evidence.
[ii] Parés-Franquero Ò, Jubert-Cortiella X, Olivares-Gálvez S, Díaz-Castellano A, Jiménez-Garrido DF, Bouso JC. Use and Habits of the Protagonists of the Story: Cannabis Social Clubs in Barcelona. Journal of Drug Issues. 2019 Oct;49(4):607-24. – https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0022042619852780