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Drug club: Spain’s alternative cannabis economy

Nick Buxton examines the experience of cannabis social clubs in Spain

June 29, 2011
10 min read

The room looks like the office of any small membership organisation: old worn furniture, jammed bookshelves, promotional posters, dented filing cabinets, random boxes of materials that have never been filed. What stands out, though, is the cloying smell of marijuana that permeates the room of the Pannagh Association in the city centre of Bilbao in northern Spain. Pannagh’s president, a young, energetic Martín Barriuso Alonso, brings out the source of the odour from the locked filing cabinets. Inside metal boxes are neatly labelled plastic bags: Critical Mass, White Widow, Medicine Man, New York Diesel, Aka 47, all ready for distribution.

It’s six o’clock on a Thursday, and soon Pannagh’s members start arriving to pick up their bags. The first is Miguel Angel, who has HIV and recently underwent a liver transplant. Then Javier, who just consumes because, hey, he enjoys it. Pannagh (which means cannabis in Sanskrit) has 300 members who each pay 40 euros a year membership and then four euros per gram, about half the rate on the black market. Some take a bag of five grams, others 10. The maximum allowed is 60 grams per month.

Legal grey area

The existence of Pannagh and up to 300 similar clubs throughout Spain is down to a quirky grey area in Spanish law. It is also the product of a determined group of activists who have pushed at the openings in the law to try to formalise their existence. In 1974 the Spanish supreme court judged that drug consumption and possession for personal use was not a crime, while still deeming drug trafficking an imprisonable offence. This created a jurisprudence in which providing drugs for compassionate reasons, and joint purchase by a group of addicts – as long as it did not involve profit-seeking – were not crimes either.

It was in 1993, however, that the law was really put to the test, when the Asociación Ramón Santos de Estudios Sobre el Cannabis (Ramon Santos Association for the Study of Cannabis, ARSEC) caught the media spotlight by publicly and openly growing cannabis for 100 of its members. The crop was confiscated, only for the provincial court to acquit those involved before the supreme court eventually ruled that although it was clear that ARSEC did not intend to traffic drugs, the cultivation of cannabis was dangerous per se and therefore should be punished.

This legal cat-and-mouse game continued as other marijuana associations forced a series of contradictory legal decisions, sometimes leading to arrests and at other times prompting no legal intervention. In the case of Pannagh, Martín Barriuso and two other members of the association were detained for three days in 2006 and had their crop confiscated.

A few months later, however, the courts ruled that there had been no crime as ‘it concerned consumption between addicts in which there was no transmission to other parties’ and ordered the police to return the confiscated plants. Seventeen kilograms of marijuana that had been rotting behind bars was returned. Although completely unusable, Barrioso still has it, a decomposing trophy of his minor victory against the system.

The legal uncertainty is far from over, as arrests of members of cannabis clubs continue to occur from time to time. However, decisions by the supreme court in October 2001 and July 2003 contradicted its initial ARSEC judgement and established that possession of cannabis, including large quantities, is not a crime if there is no clear intention of trafficking. This has made possible an explosion of cannabis user associations.

Clubbing together

Due to the lack of clear regulation, associations have had to improvise and invent solutions in order to standardise their activities. The main pioneering groups came together in 2003 as the Federation of Cannabis Clubs (FAC), which initially included 21 clubs. All are non-profit and member-run, and most have similar guidelines, keeping strict and thorough records of cultivation, distribution and costs in case there is any investigation.

As Barriuso recounts, fear of arrest is still there, but most cannabis user associations are now more afraid of thieves stealing their valuable stocks. Some even have their building alarms linked up to the local police station.

There are still many unresolved questions in terms of regulation. Nevertheless the gradual normalisation of these clubs has already marked out Spain as different to that other bastion of European drug liberalism, Holland. As Tom Blickman, a drugs policy researcher for the Transnational Institute explains: ‘The unique nature of cannabis social clubs is that they have legalised both production and consumption of cannabis within a closed club and non-profit system.

Dutch liberal cannabis policy may have minimised criminalisation of users, but it has not resolved the core contradiction known as the back door problem: coffee shops are allowed to sell up to five grams of cannabis to consumers (the front door) but have to buy their stock on the illegal market (the back door). To draw coffee shops out of the criminal sphere entirely, the cultivation of cannabis needs to be regulated.’

The grey area of the law in Spain has led to the development of an economic and social model for drug consumption that might offer a more economically and socially just alternative to market legalisation. ‘I used to think our clubs were just one step towards full legalisation, but now I am not so sure,’ says Martín Barriuso. ‘When the debate is polarised between total prohibition and almost total liberalisation, it seems people have not stopped to think that there are other ways of doing things.’

Legalisation debate

The legalisation of drugs has moved from a fringe demand to an increasingly mainstream concern over the past decade. Advocates of legalisation range from ex-Home Office minister Bob Ainsworth to the former president of Mexico to the Economist. A referendum to legalise cannabis in California in November 2010 was only narrowly defeated.

However the case for legalisation has often been pitched as bringing drugs into the capitalist open market – in the words of some advocates, to start selling heroin as if it was Coca-Cola. Yet that would turn drugs into commodities, subject to the same manipulations and abuses of the international market as other legalised drugs, such as alcohol. A legalised cannabis market, driven by profit, would soon lead to drugs supply controlled by a few, driven by profit, involving unethical promotional practices and with little concern for the health of its users – in many ways a mirror image of the illegal drugs market.

As Martín Barriuso argues, cannabis social clubs provide a viable alternative not just to the illegal but also a legalised ‘free market’ in drugs. ‘What we have found is that the limits imposed by the current legal framework, in particular the obligation to produce and distribute within a closed circle, the control of all production by members, and, above all, the absence of profit, has created a framework of relations that is different and, for us, fairer and more balanced.’

Alternative economy

Barriuso points to the way that direct contact between producers and consumers has made it easier to find a balance between dignified salaries and reasonable prices, replacing competition with a desire for mutual benefit. Direct control of production means that members have full control of the origin, quality and composition of what they are consuming, while generating legal economic activity and tax collection. Accountability within the group means that health concerns (and many of Pannagh’s members consume cannabis for health reasons) are primary.

Given those results, it is not surprising that Barriuso concludes, ‘Now that we have succeeded in obtaining our supply directly and under better conditions, why would we fight for a capitalist market for cannabis, where the power of decision is once again in the hands of a few people and where we no longer control how substances we consume are produced?’

While the future of the Spanish model of cannabis social clubs is by no means guaranteed, it is an idea that is spreading. The Dutch city of Utrecht announced in early 2011 that it plans to experiment with a closed club model for adult recreational cannabis users and other Dutch municipalities have expressed interest in doing the same.

The European Parliament recently heard proposals for an extension of cannabis social clubs across Europe. Pannagh presented evidence, based on its own financial records, that this could create 7,500 direct jobs and around 30,000 indirect jobs in Spain alone. At a European level, it could create 8.4 billion euros additional income for member governments, an attractive proposition at a time of austerity budgets.

‘It could hardly have been expected,’ says Martín Barriuso smiling, ‘but by some strange legal fate, the global prohibition of drugs applied by the Spanish courts has given place to a strange protectionist market for cannabis, where there is economic activity but no profit, entrepreneurs but no businessmen, consumers but no exploitation of producers, and the existence of a legal economy entirely separate from the major distribution outlets and the mainstream economy. In a society such as Spain, facing a deep economic and social crisis after years of speculation, extreme consumerism and easy money, this parallel economy seems now more of an advantage than a disadvantage.’

Martín Barriuso Alonso’s briefing, Cannabis Social Clubs in Spain: a normalising alternative under way, is available at www.tni.org


Fifty years of the ‘war on drugs’

2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the agreement that cemented global drug control into an international legal framework that has remained largely unchanged to this day. The subsequent ‘war on drugs’ has led to most countries worldwide using largely military and criminal-justice means in a completely unrealistic attempt to eradicate drugs use.

A coalition of international organisations, including Transform UK, the International Drug Policy Consortium and the Transnational Institute, have joined forces to launch a ‘Count the Costs’ campaign. They argue that while it was no doubt implemented with good intentions, it is now possible, reflecting on the experiences of the past half-century, to conclude that the policy has failed to achieve its goal of reducing or eliminating drug production, supply and use. In fact, drug supply and use has risen dramatically. It has also come at great social costs, fuelling conflict and insecurity in many countries, criminalising vulnerable groups of users and growers, diverting massive resources away from proven public health interventions, and rewarding violent criminal groups.

They campaign is calling on all UN member governments to make a proper assessment of the costs of the ‘war on drugs’ and to use the 50th anniversary to radically reform UN drugs conventions to focus on evidence-based drugs policies that minimise harm for drug users and do not infringe human rights.

Campaign website: www.countthecosts.org

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