Barcelona's Pot Boom and Bust

The uncertain fate of cannabis clubs in "the Amsterdam of southern Europe"


La Mesa cannabis club
Tomas Conde Kemme

It was 7 p.m. on July 10, 2014. Albert Centellas was smoking a joint in the spacious lounge of Club Kali, a quasi-legal cannabis club an hour's drive south of Barcelona. He heard a loud bang, like a thunderclap, and then another. The police were breaking down the door.

Dozens of officers in riot gear rushed in, guns drawn, and ordered everyone to stand with their hands above their heads while the remaining cops, aided by drug-sniffing dogs, searched the club. Centellas' arms ached as he and the others were held at gunpoint for the next two hours. The search ended with the seizure of all the club's marijuana products, and with the arrest of the club's president, vice president, treasurer, doorman, and two of its cannabis gardeners, on charges of money laundering and crimes against public health.

The next day, the police raided a second club, the Associación Independiente Recreativa de Autoconsumo y Medicinal (AIRAM) in Barcelona. Over the next several months, dozens of other cannabis social clubs throughout Catalonia would be closed down on drug trafficking and public health-related charges.

"We take a risk, because we understand that sometimes taking risks and creating conflict is the only way to transform the law," explains Albert Tio, president of both AIRAM and La Federació d'Associacions Cannàbiques Autoregulades de Catalunya (FEDCAC), an association of Barcelona's cannabis clubs. Tio's movement aims to expand the legal use of marijuana in Spain, and perhaps one day introduce a fully legal commercial trade in pot.

Cannabis social clubs are central to this strategy. The members of these noncommercial collectives pool their resources to cultivate enough marijuana to meet their personal needs, then consume the pot in members-only establishments. In 2011, just 40 such cannabis clubs existed in Catalonia. By 2014, according to Tio, that number had jumped to more than 500 with over 165,000 members-earning Barcelona the nickname "the Amsterdam of southern Europe."

The clubs are at least arguably following the law. Spain allows individuals to grow a limited amount of marijuana for personal use, and there is a widespread tolerance in Spanish culture for shared consumption. Spanish law doesn't penalize people for consuming cannabis products so long as they are consumed in private, just for buying or transporting them. But as we'll see, the clubs' legal status is anything but certain. Over the past year, an aggressive crackdown in Barcelona shut many of them down. The remainder exist in a legal gray area.

But that could soon change. Catalonia's cannabis activists have drafted a citizens' initiative called the Rosa Verde—the Green Rose—that would formally legalize and regulate the Cannabis Social Clubs, bringing a long legal cat-and-mouse game to an end.

Drug Reform Across Europe

The liberalization of marijuana laws has been slowly spreading across Europe. In 2001, Portugal became the first country on the continent to officially abolish all criminal penalties for possession of drugs for personal use, including hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Since then, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Belgium have decriminalized the possession of small quantities of pot for personal use, though smokers may still be subject to administrative fees and misdemeanor charges. The Czechs have also legalized medical marijuana recently, as has France. Italian legislators are considering a bill that would largely decriminalize the distribution, sale, and consumption of marijuana throughout the nation. In November, Ireland passed a sweeping reform that will decriminalize marijuana, heroin, and cocaine.

At the same time, some of Europe's most progressive drug regimes contain elements of hypocrisy. The Netherlands is famed for its cannabis coffee shops. Yet selling cannabis—even at a coffee shop—is technically a criminal offense there; it's just that the authorities "tolerate" it. Possession is technically a crime too, though it is rarely prosecuted for small amounts. The transportation of marijuana is also officially illegal.

Spain's drug policy is even more contradictory. Though individual use and cultivation are permitted in the privacy of your own home, pot consumers are subject to stiff fines if they are caught with even a small amount in a "public space." Bucking the trend toward decriminalization, the center-right Partido Popular passed a new public safety law, known colloquially as the "Gag Law," in 2015. It doubles the "administrative" fines for possessing narcotics to €600, with a possible penalty of €601 to €30,000 for "serious offenses" such as "acts of planting drugs not constituting a crime in areas visible to the public." It imposes new conditions on home growing, including hefty administrative sanctions, and it eliminates the option of entering a rehabilitation program in lieu of paying a fine.

Meanwhile, the Catalan cannabis activists have been taking matters into their own hands.

Cannabis Revolution

Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain where many citizens have been pushing for full-fledged independence, has long been an innovator in drug policy. When HIV hit Barcelona in the 1980s, for example, the city was one of the first places to adopt a needle exchange program and to create "drug consumption rooms," policies aimed at harm reduction rather than punishment. The region's cannabis clubs developed slowly, through trial and error, as a group of Barcelona-based activists aimed to push the limits of Spain's drug laws.

The idea first emerged in the back of a Barcelona comic store called Makoki. Club Kali founder Angel Benito remembers hanging out in that back room as a teenager in the mid-1990s, smoking pot and talking politics. In the bookstore's early days, someone had suggested a version of the cannabis-club idea. Almost immediately the smokers "started talking about what can be done to push this forward. They wanted to make it a reality." So the Ramon Santos Association for Cannabis Studies (ARSEC) collective was born.

The group's first move was to send a letter to the Spanish anti-drug public prosecutor asking whether it would be considered a crime to cultivate cannabis for use by a group of adults, so long as they grew just enough pot to provide each consumer with their legal limit. The ambiguous response: While cultivating for personal consumption was permitted, cultivation for a group would be "challenging to categorize."

Sensing an opening, the activists gathered a group of 100 people and planted around 200 pot seeds near Tarragona. They were careful to limit themselves to a yield that would provide the members with no more than their legally permitted amount. But when harvest time came, the police seized the plants and arrested those responsible on charges of "transgression against public health." The provincial court acquitted them, but the Supreme Court then reversed the decision, giving the defendants prison sentences (later dropped) and fining them for "negligent endangerment."

Two years later, despite the court's decision, the group decided to pursue the path of civil disobedience and do it again. This time they weren't alone: A Bilbao-based group called the Kalamudia Association decided to attempt the cultivation of 600 plants for 200 people. Unlike the ARSEC crew's initial attempt, it avoided legal action, and was able to successfully harvest the crop.

At around the same time, the regional government of Andalucía, a province in the south of Spain, commissioned a report on the possibility of setting up establishments where people could use pot, while respecting Spain's current drug laws. The report, published in 1999, concluded that it could be done, so long as they were "centers that are not open to an indiscriminate public, but where access is restricted to hashish or marijuana smokers. As a method of controlling access, people would have to be regular users. These would be places of private consumption among regular users, where they would be able to obtain and consume quantities that would not exceed the fixed consumption limit." This document sowed the seeds for today's cannabis clubs.

Enter Martí Cànaves Llitrà, a Barcelona-based criminal lawyer with a history of challenging authority. Born in Mallorca, an island off the coast of Valencia, Cànaves says he was drawn to the study of law in order keep himself and his friends out of trouble. That soon matured into something larger. "I wanted to fight for personal freedoms," he says. "I was frustrated by the hypocrisy of the drug laws and wanted to do something about it."

Working with one of the early clubs, the Barcelona Personal Use Cannabis Association (ABCDA), Cànaves advised its members to sign contracts agreeing to abide by a specific set of statutes. He then sent the documents to the public prosecutor for her approval, and after getting that green light Cànaves told the club to go ahead. When the police eventually raided the club, the leaders of ABCDA got off without any legal action. Thus, the current model of the cannabis social club was born.

Today, more and more cannabis clubs in Barcelona are registering as legal entities. Most follow a set of self-imposed regulations, which emerged from a series of talks between federation leaders and public health authorities. The clubs' members must all be adults. They must not be first-time users (a gesture meant to assure authorities that they are not "spreading addiction"). Membership fees—which vary from group to group—go toward cultivation, club maintenance, and paying an independent engineer who confirms that the number of plants being grown falls under the legal limit.

Many of the clubs have even been paying taxes, sending the government roughly 20 percent of the money that changes hands when a member cashes in for his or her "share" of cannabis. Cànaves sees that as leverage in his ongoing campaign to legalize marijuana. "We've sent them about €250,000," he says. "Even while the government says it's illegal, they've never offered to return the tax revenue."

The number of clubs in Barcelona expanded, yet the push for legalization was stalled. Then Cànaves had another idea. He just needed to find the right partner to make it a reality. Enter Bernat Pellisa, the mayor of Rasquera.

Marijuana Village

At first glance, Rasquera doesn't have much to offer tourists. A tiny agricultural pueblo at the base of a mountain in the province of Taragonna, it boasts just one small plaza, two bars, and the ruins of a castle. Around the periphery of the village, neglected homes with crumbling stone walls and boarded up windows languish, abandoned by families pursuing better opportunities elsewhere. Just 900 residents remain today. There are so few children that the secondary school has closed.

But in 2012, the tiny town made international headlines. Mayor Pellisa announced that he planned to finance the town's public debt—roughly €1.3 million—by creating a public company that would cultivate cannabis for a 5,000-member club in Barcelona.

"The village was dying," Cànaves explains. "It was a way for them to get economic independence, to fix the village in the map, create a brand: green tourism and a paradise for cannabis lovers." It was also a way to show the world—and the Spanish government—the economic potential of legalizing cannabis.

"We really needed financing," recalls Pellisa, who left office in 2013. "I won the election on an anti-crisis platform, for a project that was supposed to bring jobs and new economic life to the pueblo. This was the answer." After a lot of door-to-door canvassing and some town-hall meetings, the village held a referendum. The plan passed with 56 percent of the vote.

ABCDA would pay the town €650,000 a year to grow its annual supply. The cultivation would take place on a seven-hectare stretch of land belonging to the town hall, with unemployed members of the pueblo hired to do the farming. (The cannabis crop would be rotated with cereals and sugarbeets.) The organizers also had plans to found a research center to investigate various uses for the plant. Pellisa expected the idea to create 40 jobs and allow the town to pay off its debt in just two years. Without the pot, it might take them 30.

A year later, before the plants could be harvested, the Spanish judiciary suspended the project.

Cànaves says he suspected from the start that the operation would be shut down. Still, he believes it was worth the effort. "We needed to show that there was public support behind the idea—and there is," he says. "With the popularization of the cannabis social clubs, and the support of a democratically elected leader in a small village in Spain, we can show the government that this is a model that people will support."

With the defeat of the Rasquera project, Cànaves turned his attention to a project he hopes will legalize the social clubs once and for all: the Rosa Verde. This law would formalize many of the rules adopted by FEDCAC members into legislation, and it would also spell out how clubs can legally cultivate and transport marijuana.

The Green Rose

From the outside, La Mesa looks like just another abandoned storefront. The entrance is locked, its windows are blocked with butcher paper depicting flickering flames, and there's no sign to identify it. Most people would probably just walk by, writing it off as another casualty of Spain's decade-long economic crisis. But Albert Tio approaches the entrance, hits a buzzer, and watches the door click open.

Inside, the club looks like a cross between an elegant cocktail bar and an artsy coffee lounge. Large photographs of a joint-smoking guru adorn the walls above mismatched vintage sofas, where a young artist and an eclectic group of distinguished-looking older professionals sit and smoke. Jazz plays in the background. After signing in, Tio heads to a bar, where an array of gourmet pot products are on display, averaging €5 per serving, He buys a drink and retires to one of the couches, where he rolls a joint using marijuana he cultivated at home, lights it, and takes a long drag.

One of Barcelona's largest and most popular cannabis clubs, La Mesa currently boasts a membership of more than 5,000 people. Tio joined when La Mesa first opened, and started frequenting the club after AIRAM was shut down, though he mostly prefers to smoke his own weed. Clubs come in all shapes and sizes. Some, like this one, are primary recreational. Others are staffed with doctors, catering to members more concerned with access to medical marijuana. One intimate club has a membership of only women over the age of 80.

But over the past year, a series of raids and crackdowns has threatened the status of Catalonia's clubs. Recently, more than 50 clubs closed when former Barcelona Mayor Xavier Trias, of the Convergencia de Catalunya party, promised to push through zoning restrictions requiring all clubs within 150 meters of schools, libraries, hospitals, and gyms to close, which would have shut down 80 percent of existing facilities. Before they could be put into effect this year, Barcelona's new mayor, Ada Colao, an anti-eviction activist and member of the far-left party Podemos, reversed the zoning restrictions.

In October, the Supreme Court dealt another blow, ruling that a Bilbao cannabis club's "structure and function exceeded the philosophy" of shared consumption. In the 100-page decision, the judges suggest that its membership must be far more limited if the club is to avoid vulnerability to trafficking charges.

As the president of FEDCAC, one of Albert Tio's primary jobs in the past several months has been to gather signatures in support of the Rosa Verde. To bring the initiative before the regional parliament, the activists need 50,000 signatures by the end of January. At that point the Catalan Parliament will discuss it and propose changes.

If the law passes, Catalonia will have legalized the social clubs. "It would be a great thing for us," Tio says. "People wouldn't have to live in fear of arrest. It would mean that we finally work with judicial security."

If the initiative fails, the movement will continue to try other avenues, says Tio. Right now, cannabis activists are also working on a similar proposal, called the Regulación Resonable (Reasonable Regulation), that they hope to introduce to the Spanish Parliament. They have already approached the four main parties—the Partido Popular, PSEO, Podemos, and Ciudadanos—for support. All except the Partido Popular have publicly expressed openness for discussing new marijuana regulations.

And then they could move on to more reforms. "The nonprofit model isn't a long-term solution," Cànaves says. "It's an intermediary initiative. People want to make money off of this. It's only natural, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. What we need is a for-profit model—the commercialization of cannabis."

In Spain's current political climate, such a goal is a distant dream. But the Rosa Verde is a promising first step.