The legal status of cannabis in Spain can be a complicated and confusing matter to get your head around, with the country’s uniquely ambiguous laws leaving even those at the forefront of the Spanish cannabis community unsure of the legality of their activities. Over the past three decades, the Iberian nation has become famous for its cannabis social clubs, yet the existence of these organisations has exposed the haziness of the Spanish legal system, resulting in a frustratingly complex judicial pantomime.
Before diving into the cannabis club conundrum, it’s important to make clear that cannabis has been decriminalised for personal use in Spain, as long as it is consumed on a private property and not in public. The cultivation of an unspecified amount of plants is also permitted, provided these are not visible from any public space, such as a street.
In this regard, Spain is clearly ahead of the curve with regards to cannabis legislation across Europe, although the lack of clarity regarding the number of plants that a person can legally grow has created a significant amount of confusion. The law only stipulates that an individual may cultivate a quantity of cannabis that is appropriate for personal use, and it’s this vagueness that has led to the emergence of the country’s cannabis clubs.
The purpose of these associations is to cultivate an amount of cannabis that does not exceed the quantity required by its members for personal use. The first of these clubs appeared in Barcelona back in 1991, and while there are now hundreds of them across Spain, the question of whether or not they are strictly legal has still not been decisively answered after almost 30 years.
How Do Cannabis Social Clubs Work?
In accordance with Spanish law, cannabis social clubs grow their marijuana on a private property and do not sell to the public or make any profit whatsoever from their activities. Their purpose is simply to provide cannabis to their members, who must consume their weed on site, thereby preventing anyone from obtaining a stash of marijuana that would exceed their personal use needs.
Other regulations have been put in place to ensure that no laws are broken. For example, clubs are completely closed to the public, with membership being granted only by invitation from an existing member. Furthermore, no cannabis is bought or sold on the premises. Instead, members pay a monthly fee in order to cover the club’s running costs, in return for which they are given access to a limited amount of marijuana per day. The money generated as a result must all be reinvested into the organisation, ensuring that no one profits from the transaction.
Technically, therefore, none of the members or representatives of a cannabis club can be said to be in breach of the country’s cannabis legislation. This arrangement allows both recreational and medical cannabis users to access their marijuana from an above-board organisation rather than from the black market. There’s just one problem though…
Spain’s Complex Legal System
While Spain is unique in terms of its approach to cannabis, it is also unique among European countries in terms of its legal system. This is because the country is made up of numerous autonomous regions, each of which has the power to set its own laws that may clash with those set by the central government. As a result, Spain’s situation is a little like that in the US, where certain states have decriminalised or even legalised marijuana, despite the fact that it remains illegal at the federal level.
The biggest problem here is that the national government has never passed any legislation or provided any official regulations regarding cannabis social clubs. As a consequence, these clubs are completely unprotected by Spanish law, which is why cannabis activists have spent the past few decades demanding that the government create a legal framework for these clubs to operate in.
In response, several of the country’s autonomous regions have attempted to pass their own laws on cannabis social clubs, yet the majority of these have been annulled by the Constitutional Court. For example, in 2014 the regional government of Navarre, in northern Spain, passed a piece of legislation known as Foral Law 24/2014, which sought to officially regulate and therefore legalise cannabis social clubs. However, in 2017 the Constitutional Court declared this law null and void after deeming that it interfered with the central government’s exclusive power to legislate on criminal matters.
A similar situation arose after a municipal bylaw was passed in San Sebastian in 2014, which set out a range of guidelines that determined where cannabis clubs could exist and how they could operate. In March of 2019, this law was also annulled by the courts.
Perhaps the most comprehensive piece of legislation was passed in Catalonia, where cannabis social clubs were completely legalised in July 2017. Once more, however, the courts decided that this law was unconstitutional, rendering it null and void in September 2018.
Fortunately, however, a new precedent was finally set in the Basque Country, where the Constitutional Court actually ruled against the national government’s objection to a regional law that regulated the activities of cannabis social clubs. Known as the Basque Law on Addiction and Drug Dependency, the bill states that these clubs should be allowed to operate as they significantly contribute to public health by keeping drug users safe and providing support for those at risk of developing a drug use disorder.
It is worth noting that the Basque region has historically seen extremely high rates of drug addiction, particularly during the 1980s when experimental drug use became a major component of the new youth culture that emerged following the end of the Franco dictatorship. Sadly, this led to a dramatic upsurge in overdoses and the transmission of diseases like HIV as hard drugs like heroin flooded into the region.
Obviously, marijuana does not carry these same risks, although the law that allows for the regulation of cannabis clubs in the Basque country stipulates that these organisations have a key role to play in the ongoing fight against opioid addiction, and creates a framework by which these clubs can collaborate with the health authorities in order to provide support to vulnerable members.
It is estimated that between 500 and 700 cannabis social clubs currently exist across Spain, although the majority of these are found in Catalonia and the Basque region, largely because of the support that local governments have shown in these areas. As their popularity increases nationwide though, the need for the central government to step up and create a legal framework for these clubs to exist is becoming ever more apparent.