The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction report for 2014 cites Spain as one of the top five countries for cannabis, with consumption among people from ages 15 to 64 years old being about one in three. However, the buying and selling of cannabis is illegal in Spain. Public possession of less than two ounces of cannabis is not a criminal offence, but can be heavily fined. Possession of more than two ounces, growing for with the intent to sell, or selling are considered criminal offences.Several months ago the new Citizens Security Law (Ley de Seguridad Ciudadana) significantly increased the fines that may be levied for drug possession, including marijuana. Under the 1992 version of the law, possession of even small quantities was considered a grave infraction, with 300 euros being the minimum fine for public consumption. The new law has raised this minimum to 1,001 euros, with a maximum of 30,000 euros. The new law has also eliminated the option to go into rehab at an accredited centre to avoid paying the fine.
Harsher laws notwithstanding, there currently exist numerous private cannabis clubs in Barcelona, some estimates putting the number at up to 200. But wait, there’s more: these clubs are legal, they are not breaking any law.Private cannabis clubs currently exist by the grace of a legal loophole. Personal behaviour within a privately-owned space is protected by the Spanish constitution. Therefore, even though an individual cannot buy or sell marijuana, he or she can use it in his or her residence or other private setting while still remaining perfectly legal.This means that while a person is inside a private marijuana club, he is within the law. The tricky part comes when that person steps out of the club—he is no longer in a private setting and could be fined heavily for possession. Members who bring marijuana home with them are aware that they do so at their own risk of being stopped by the police.
If you’re scratching your head in confusion, Russ Hudson’s website, www.marijuanagames.com, provides a wealth of information about exactly these kinds of legal subtleties, and more. Russ is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, and moved to Barcelona from Germany in the early autumn of 2013. He has a background in building websites and marketing, and decided that he wanted to build a site about a topic that he cared about and felt would benefit the community. On his website are cannabis strain reviews, club reviews, general advice to newcomers on how to stay legal within the cannabis scene, as well as information covering the Barcelona, Amsterdam and Denver, Colorado markets (all free of charge). There are even games—Stoned Pacman, anyone?
Russ is well-versed in the laws and customs of the cannabis club universe. He says, “Don’t confuse a cannabis club in Barcelona for a coffee shop in Amsterdam; they’re not at all the same thing. Amsterdam’s coffee shops are public and are open to anyone at any time. Barcelona’s cannabis clubs, on the other hand, are only open to new members via referrals through existing members. The clubs are not meant to cater to tourists.”He explains that the clubs do not have “owners;” instead, they act as cooperatives where membership fees pay for the costs of cultivation of the club members’ marijuana, as well as the basic operating costs of the club’s facilities. The members are not buying weed; the plants that are grown theoretically belong to all of the members. As private organisations, these clubs aren’t allowed to advertise. Hudson warns that if you are interested in joining a club, you should avoid any club that advertises publicly; i.e., that hands out flyers on the streets. “After all, doing business with a cannabis club that’s breaking the rules is self-defeating when lawmakers in Barcelona and Spain overall still haven’t made their minds up about cannabis clubs just yet,” he says. At the end of May the police closed down a cannabis club in the Raval for dealing. Allegedly the club was selling marijuana directly to tourists who were invited in from the street.
There have been rumours that the Ajuntament is working on legislation to regulate the clubs, but at the moment the market is still largely unregulated. The Ajuntament imposes certain safety requirements on each club as it would on any other business, such as fire exits, ventilation and handicap access, but that’s about it. Hudson says that regulation would actually be a good thing, in that it would not leave the clubs wide open to the problems that result from so much legal grey area.The most controversial issue with regards to cannabis use is that the determination as to the legality of what one is doing is ultimately decided in the moment by the police on the scene, who may fine or arrest an individual if his cannabis activities are deemed to be outside of his private domain. In theory, regulations would make this distinction much clearer and save both club members and the authorities a great deal of hassle.In part because of the current lack of regulation, the clubs themselves run the gamut from professional, careful and clean, to dingy, dirty and disorganised.
The Dragon Cannabis Club is one of the consistently highest-rated cannabis clubs in Barcelona. The club’s spokesperson, Alex, says that the key to making the club work is that “we are all members, with equal rights over decision-making in our club. The complicated part is then transforming these wants and priorities into actions. We work hard at it… but it's a challenge worth the effort.” He says they are also extremely conscious regarding the responsible use of cannabis, the associated risks, its therapeutic benefits and the impact they can have on the local cannabis community, and are careful to run a tight ship where legal questions are concerned.
In Alex’s opinion, the majority of Barcelona residents—whether club members or not—believe there is room for improvement in the drug policies related to cannabis. “I think the city is fairly divided on this issue. There are those who want regulation to create a safe environment for cannabis clubs, but there are those who don't want the headache they think will be involved.” Others outside of the cannabis community see cannabis as a potential source of tax revenue; however, this would be an impossibility without the government first legalising marijunana in general, which is extremely unlikely as well as politically nearly impossible according to the terms of the Single Convention on Narcotics of 1961, of which Spain is a part. Alex hopes the government will consult with representatives of cannabis clubs while in the process of reshaping the laws, in order to avoid the possibility of overly repressive, or inadequate, laws that could ultimately encourage a black market to develop in order to meet demand. However, he’s not hoping for an instant miracle. “We understand that the regulations will probably evolve gradually. We hope that marijuana will eventually come to be regarded as a public health issue, rather than a criminal issue.” He also suggests that lawmakers consult with police officers on the ground who deal with the enforcement of anti-drug laws every day. “The police see better than anyone the amount of time and resources that are wasted enforcing laws that don’t actually serve the community. We at the clubs have no problem with the police—we respect that they’re just doing their jobs.
”Local lawmakers, residents and tourists interested in educating themselves about the uses, risks, history, and effects of hemp and marijuana have an important resource at their fingertips: the Hash Marihuana Cáñamo and Hemp Museum in the Ciutat Vella. The museum—founded by Dutch entrepreneur Ben Dronkers, who had already opened a similar museum in Amsterdam in 1985—is located in a stunning example of 15th-century Modernista architecture, Palau Mornau. Museum spokesperson Sofie Anne Laborde says that with more education, the government representatives, natives and foreigners will all be able to make better-informed decisions about marijuana use and the laws passed to regulate it. (They even invited politicians from the Generalitat to their grand opening ten years ago.) Laborde agrees that regulation of the clubs would be a positive thing, “in order to reduce the dangers involved in a black market system that will undoubtedly flourish in the face of either the lack of or too strict regulation.” She says that the museum is a big draw for tourists, because there are very few places in Europe where such a wealth of information about the history and scientific properties of hemp and marijuana is readily available to be public.
Russ Hudson also points out that the tourists who do come to Barcelona specifically seeking the “Barcelona marijuana experience,” are also bringing in revenue via restaurants, shopping, and hotels. He says that it’s only a matter of doing the maths to see how this demographic affects revenue for the city.
However, there is naturally a negative side to Barcelona’s steadily growing reputation as a tourist destination for marijuana users. As with any profitable market, this one attracts parasites that leech off of the demand created by organisations that are trying to do business the right way. There are unvetted websites out there that offer expensive marijuana-themed tours, lumping stops at typical tourist attractions (La Boqueria, Barceloneta) into the “Barcelona Marijuana experience.”We can expect some fierce debate about the city's cannabis clubs in the coming months, as the Ajuntament works out how they should be regulated. There's clearly a need for a more effective legal framework and it will be interesting to see if the Ajuntament is able to create exactly that.
* We were unable to reach a representative of the Ajuntament for comment as to how it feels about the revenue generated by marijuana tourism or about the impending regulations of the cannabis clubs.
THE TOP FIVE*
1. La Rambla Dragon (La Rambla 130, 08002)
2. Barcelona Coffee Shop (Tallers 20, 08001)
3. The Clinic Barcelona (Moles 5, 08002)
4. Senzi Club (Gran Via Corts Catalanes 674, 08010)
5. La Mesa Barcelona (Carrer del Rec 62, 08003)
*As rated by users of CannabisBarcelona.com. As of the writing of this article, La Rambla Dragon and Barcelona Coffee Shop were rated at 5 stars, the others at 4.5.
CANNABIS, TECHNOLOGY, AND SOCIAL MEDIA
www.weedbud.com -- A new interactive social networking app for private cannabis clubs in Spain, recently launched in Barcelona. Their website says they “use geolocation services to connect you with cannabis clubs near your area… we protect your privacy while giving you the social interaction you're looking for.” Think mini-Facebook for cannabis users and club members.
www.weedmaps.com -- An international online legal marijuana community that allows users to discuss cannabis strains and local dispensaries. It bills itself as the “#1 medical marijuana strain locator and dispensary finder site in the world.”
www.leafly.com -- An online resource that allows users to review different strains of cannabis, as well as search for specific strains by name or by medicinal use or effect. It calls itself “the world’s largest cannabis strain resource.”
Steve De Swardt is a professional musician who plays at many venues around Barcelona, such as Jamboree and Rien de Rien, and is also regularly booked to perform in cannabis clubs in Barcelona.
Q: Where are you from and how long have you been living in Barcelona?
A: I am from the heart of Africa, Zimbabwe, and arrived here in 1976.
Q: What is the difference between playing a gig in a “coffee shop” as opposed to in a bar or rock club?
A: It’s a different kind of environment in the cannabis clubs, for the obvious reason that the audience is getting high. Some folks get talkative and distracted, and don’t seem to be very attentive to the music, but that crowd will usually go hang out in the back room. Then there are others who are there totally for the music. They come out every time we play, and while smoking is something they enjoy doing while quietly listening, it’s not the main purpose of coming to the club that night. Though I guess it’s similar to how other people would enjoy having a glass of wine while listening to music in another type of venue, while others might get drunk and be more interested in the party than in the band.
Q: At what clubs do you usually play, and why?
A: I normally play at the ABCDA club near Estació de França, where I’m also a member. In general the audience is appreciative and they applaud. With so many small music venues closing, due to more and more restrictive laws put in place by the Ajuntament, as a musician it’s great to have access to another type of place to play. The club is currently closed temporarily because the supplier was arrested.
Q: Why do you think the government allows so many clubs to operate even though, like your friends at ABCDA, other clubs are being shut down?
A: The laws are very unclear, which is a problem. One minute a club is doing fine, and the next, one false move and they’re suddenly illegal. I would guess that some people in a position of power don’t mind the existence of these clubs because they generate money for the city—in terms of attracting a certain kind of tourism, and in terms of the taxes that are paid by the club’s owners. That’s what these times are about, right? Money is king, so they don’t shut the clubs down. I would also guess also that permitting these clubs to function helps reduce the “mafia” element then tends to control any black market. Of course there are factions that are totally against the idea of the clubs and of marijuana use in general, and no matter what will continue to vilify what is essentially just an herb—as well as the people who use it.
Q: As a member of the cannabis club community, what do you think would be a good solution to the legal issues involved?
A: I think that it would be more beneficial to the community as a whole if the guys in power could stop focusing on what is perceived as the negative aspects of marijuana use, and consider the physical and social benefits. Most of the criticism is hypocritical. These are the same guys who would have been against alcohol during Prohibition. It’s not hurting anyone, it gives local art and music additional outlets, and it’s a possible stream of revenue for the city. What’s wrong with that?