Nick Buxton examines the experience of cannabis social clubs in Spain
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
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
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
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
'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