Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.


331