A growing climate of tolerance?

A town in Catalonia wants to rent out land to grow cannabis on a large scale The plan is adding a new dimension to the debate on legalizing the drug

Rasquera wants to lease seven hectares of land to a cannabis user association.
Rasquera wants to lease seven hectares of land to a cannabis user association.JAIME SALDARRIAGA (REUTERS )

If it's not illegal to consume cannabis in Spain, what's the problem with cultivating the psychoactive drug on a commercial scale? That is the question the Catalan regional government is now being forced to address following the decision by the council of Rasquera, a small town in Tarragona province, to lease seven hectares of publicly owned land for 1.3 million euros over the next two years to a cannabis users' association, which is hoping to sell the weed to its 5,000 members for recreational and medicinal use.

Spanish law allows the cultivation of marijuana plants for "personal and shared use," but also imposes a series of conditions that legal experts say would be impossible to meet in this instance. The mayor of Rasquera, Bernat Pellisa of the Catalan Republican Left party, says the deal with the Barcelona Personal Use Cannabis Association (ABCDA), which is part of a growing movement of private marijuana clubs in Spain, would settle its debts. At the same time, the announcement has added fuel to the debate over the legalization of the drug.

Private clubs for marijuana users find themselves in a legal limbo in most of Spain, with the exception of the Basque Country, where the regional government has set up a commission to look into introducing new legislation to cover responsible consumption of cannabis for people aged over 18.

The law would provide a framework to allow people who want to use cannabis to do so legally through private associations that would be subject to regulation and supervision.

"Cannabis use is an established and increasingly accepted reality in our society,'' says Martin Barriuso, of the Basque cannabis federation. "Instead of turning our backs on this reality, we think the reasonable thing to do is to find a way to regulate it, encouraging responsible use and making it difficult for adolescents to get hold of it.'' The Basque Country's move would also provide police and courts with guidelines as to what constitutes cultivation for members' use. It would also, in effect, legalize the drug.

Barriuso describes the Basque parliament's step as "historic," paving the way for other regions to gradually roll back the prohibitionist approach of the European Union toward controlling cannabis. The first Socialist Party administrations of the 1980s experimented with permissive legislation that decriminalized drug use, including heroin, but did not tackle the issue of supply. After a decade, the Socialist Party repealed the legislation, but allowed for the cultivation of cannabis for personal use. Head shops selling seeds and growing equipment are found in most towns and many neighborhoods of big cities.

Moves to regulate the use of cannabis in the Basque Country would be integrated into wider legislation to tackle the greater issue of addiction to illegal drugs, which it is hoping to introduce this year.

Celina Pereda, the head of the Basque health service's drug dependence program, says the new law would require private associations to register with the authorities. They would then be subject to supervision to prevent minors from being members, as well as to provide users with information on the effects of drug use. She says the commission's aim is also to generate a debate on a subject that she says has been "trivialized."

The global issue

  • The Netherlands. For decades visitors have enjoyed a puff in the coffee shops of Amsterdam and other large cities. But the production and distribution of cannabis remains unregulated in the Netherlands, and the Dutch government, under pressure from Brussels, is increasingly limiting access to coffee shops to foreigners. The strength of the cannabis they sell will also be regulated. The EU's smoking ban in public places has also hit coffee shops.
  • The United States. Marijuana can be used for medicinal purposes in California, Colorado, New Jersey and Washington, a policy that has created an industry to supply the drug. Doctors can prescribe cannabis as a painkiller and to help with appetite loss. A referendum in California to legalize the drug completely in the state was narrowly defeated. The federal government has avoided taking sides in such initiatives.
  • Latin America. There is an ongoing debate on decriminalizing cannabis use in several countries in the region. A group of former leaders, including Spain's Felipe González, along with Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Mexico's Ernesto Zedillo, Colombia's César Gaviria, and former UN chief Kofi Annan, have argued that the prohibitionist approach has manifestly failed, and that it is time to look at new ways of controlling supply and production of the drug.
  • Spain. Growing cannabis for home use is widespread, taking advantage of legislation that does not punish consumption in private places. A number of court rulings have established that growing for personal use is not illicit. User associations have increasingly taken advantage of this, and are now pressing to be allowed to grow cannabis on a large scale. The project in Rasquera will be an important test case.

There are some 50 private cannabis user associations in the Basque Country that would benefit from the proposals. In Catalonia, around 30 such associations are hoping that Rasquera follows through on its decision to lease land to cultivate cannabis. The regional government's initial response has been a flat rejection. Felip Puig, the interior chief in the right-wing Convergence and Union administration that controls Catalonia, has said he will take legal action to prevent Rasquera leasing land on which to grow cannabis.

José Rey Cadenas, a Barcelona-based criminal lawyer, says the law as it stands is "open to interpretation." The legislation passed by the Socialist Party in 1992 regards possession of drugs, even if for personal use, as a serious offense. As a result, over the last two decades the police have repeatedly arrested people growing cannabis on a large scale. But the decisions reached by the courts have varied. Since 1997, provincial courts have increasingly absolved those brought before them, with the Supreme Court subsequently ratifying them.

These sentences, based on the defense that the cannabis was for "shared use," and not for sale, have encouraged clubs to come out into the open, says Aitor Breton, a lawyer who works for the Basque cannabis federation. "This is about people who smoke regularly, and have permission to do so. These kinds of clubs must be based strictly on membership, and consumption must take place in a controlled environment. Also, the amount grown must be calculated on the demand within the club; there can be no excess," he says.

Breton is nevertheless pessimistic about the Rasquera initiative. "I can see two main problems here: first, that there has to be an estimate about how much the club's members are going to consume; and second, anybody from the village working on the plantation would have to be a member of the club."

Víctor Gómez, a law lecturer at the University of Barcelona, says courts so far have only had to deal with cases relating to the cultivation of relatively small numbers of plants, "not on this scale." He says that with large amounts of the drug being produced there is clearly a risk that some would make its way out into the wider community, "where it would be seen as a threat to public health."

María Pascual, a lawyer specializing in drugs cases, raises another problem: "What is the role of the town hall in all this?

"The town hall is making money out of this, and has nothing to do with the cannabis users' club, the same applies to those who work on the plantation," says Pascual, adding: "This is a highly risky venture from a legal perspective."

Mayor Pellisa, who has spent several years working out the details of the proposal, has commissioned a legal report that he says concludes that growing cannabis "does not constitute a crime." At the same time, he highlights the likely economic benefits to the community.

Martí Cánaves, the lawyer who oversaw the preparation of the report, insists the proposal is viable. "We want to end the hypocrisy that surrounds this subject. Our project has clear guidelines that would address the problems associated with these types of plantations: we have provided legal guarantees, as well as taking the measures necessary to prevent theft or fire. The police can come if they want - they can't touch us," says Cánaves, who says there are some 400 marijuana plantations in Spain, half of which are in Catalonia.

"This issue had to come up somewhere, and it has turned out to be Rasquera, and now there is no going back," he concludes.

The toke of the town


There is only one topic of conversation in Rasquera these days. This community of 900 people, located in rural Tarragona province, has suddenly found itself under the spotlight after its town council announced plans to cede land for the cultivation of cannabis.

The question many in Rasquera are asking is whether the mayor, Bernat Pellisa of the Catalan Republican Left party, has the law on his side. He insists he has, and argues that what's more, the deal would pay off the town's 1.3-million-euro debt in one fell swoop.

Any cannabis grown in Rasquera would be solely for the 5,000 or so members of the Barcelona Personal Use Cannabis Association (ABCDA). Mayor Pellisa says that aside from paying the community's debts, the project would also create some 40 jobs.

Rasquera's population is ageing fast, as more and more young people abandon an agricultural sector that is in crisis and head for the cities in search of work. But some residents fear that the village could become a kind of Amsterdam.

"We are making fools of ourselves. All we'll do is attract dopeheads here," says Bernard Farnós, one of the three town councilors belonging to the right-wing Convergence and Union party, which controls the Catalan regional government.

The ABCDA wants to lease seven hectares of land in Rasquera to cultivate cannabis under plastic-sheet-covered greenhouses. It intends to plant its first seedlings on 500 square meters of land in the coming months. The association will pay an initial tranche of 36,000 euros, and eventually pay 1.3 million euros over the next two years to cover the cost of renting the land, and providing security, and legal costs. The land would also be used for the growing of organic beetroot and cereals.

Other cannabis personal consumption associations have also made offers to Rasquera. The town council is set to sign another deal with AIRAM, the Independent Recreational and Medicinal Personal Use Association, which has 7,000 members. Rasquera's mayor says he has also been contacted by the University of Salamanca, the European Drugs Observatory, as well as groups representing cancer sufferers. An organization in California apparently wants to set up a health center to palliate illnesses through marijuana use.

"We have set a precedent in Europe and we have our own projects related to cannabis seeds," says Mayor Pallisa.

But listening to the conversations in the bars and the squares of Rasquera, it's clear that many people have their doubts about the proposals to turn the town into an experiment in de facto legalization of marijuana. "If it's an association with therapeutic aims, how come they have so much money?" asks Gina, aged 60. "I have cancer, and my sister does as well. She was advised to smoke dope during chemotherapy, but I've never tried it."

Martí Cánaves of law firm DMT, who has put together a report on the legal implications of growing cannabis in the village, says that neither the town council nor ABCDA have anything to hide. "There is nothing underhand going on here. ABCDA works with an order of nuns, as well as a magazine published by the local Civil Guard."

In the town's main bar, De Baix, several people speak out in favor of the proposal to grow cannabis on public land. "This isn't going to become a drug hangout. It's more likely to be just another tourist attraction, like eating the local food," says Josep Sabaté, aged 60.

Others highlight the economic benefits. "I was a laborer, and I have been out of work for two years without earning a penny. The mayor has good intentions," says Domingo Moreso, aged 59, adding: "I'd happily plant marijuana. It's work, and we need work."

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