Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
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.’
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.’
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
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
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead