Europe produces marijuana on an industrial scale. It does so in sufficient quantities to satisfy a significant part of internal demand (60 percent, say some sources) and reduce its dependence on other continents. Over the last five years, a silent drug-trafficking revolution has taken root, fostering an internal European market with its own flow of imports and exports.
Spain has not remained untouched by this phenomenon. Spanish marijuana production has increased at least fivefold in the last five years, while the number of cannabis plants confiscated grew 532 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to Interior Ministry data. In the five provinces most affected – Murcia, Málaga, Granada, Alicante and Valencia, in that order – more than 105,000 plants were confiscated in 2013 alone.
The same producer can do all the work. They don’t have to cross the Strait of Gibraltar”
Genetic improvements in seeds, advances in hydroponic growing techniques (which don’t require soil) and the existence of small plants able to produce four to six top-quality harvests a year have all given a competitive edge to what one expert has termed “eurocannabis.” And there is already significant proof that Spain has not just positioned itself among the group of the producers but also among the exporters. One indication is the number of confiscated plants. Another is the fact that the police operations that started out discovering small homemade greenhouses are now uncovering almost industrial installations, operated by people with a business plan.
Something in the Málaga air
Some time ago, a non-commissioned Civil Guard officer approached the biology department at Málaga University. He wanted to find out the opinion of the experts who measure the levels of particles in the city’s air, among them, those of cannabis pollen. Their measurements pointed to a rise in the number of cannabis pollen particles over the last three years that could not be explained by long-distance wind dispersal. It could indicate the presence of crops close by. “We cannot go further than that conclusion,” said one of the researchers. Málaga was the province that saw the second-highest number of cannabis plants confiscated in 2013.
Both the police and Civil Guard lack information about the profile of growers. They have seen cases of local producers who have no links to foreign distributors, but also of foreign (Dutch and British) producers based in Spain. “The investigation is much more complex in these cases because these organizations are very small and don’t need the number of collaborators or the complexity of a hashish-transport operation,” explains a Málaga Civil Guard lieutenant. “The same producer can do nearly all the work. They don’t have to cross the Strait of Gibraltar or anything like that: they put the produce in a car or truck and take it to its destination. At most, they need a couple of people to watch over the farm or warehouse.”
The officers interviewed recognize that local producers have a “competitive advantage” in being able to eliminate the middlemen from part of the chain. “Growers in the traditional cannabis-producing countries do not receive more than a modest percentage of the price paid by European consumers,” says a Europol report. “However, European producers receive up to almost 50 percent of income.”
There is also another factor: price. The cost of a gram of marijuana has gone up from €3.58 to €5.02 in four years, while that of a gram of hashish (cannabis plant resin) has remained stable.
This stability is another sign of the competition posed by eurocannabis, which is taking over markets that were previously almost exclusively dominated by Moroccan hashish. The number of hashish seizures also points to a clear decline: from almost 700,000 kilos in the 1990s to 300,000 kilos today.
The area covered by the new European market is still unclear, because the statistics are very recent, the collection of data has not been standardized, and interior plantations coexist with exterior ones, with the latter more widespread in southern European countries such as Spain, where they are sometimes hidden among corn or other agricultural crops.
Experts agree that the two biggest marijuana producers are the Netherlands and the UK, where the biggest numbers of plants have been found. Behind them are Poland and Belgium, where between 1,200 and 1,500 production centers were discovered in 2012. The Belgian case has a particular explanation: legislative changes that criminalize marijuana growing have led Dutch producers to move some of their plants across the border to later import their produce for their coffee shops.
The new market has also brought it with some curious setups. The marijuana consumed in Hungary comes from Vietnamese distributors who have spread production to parts of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland. In this way, both Slovakia and the Czech Republic have become exporters to, among other places, Germany. Vietnamese organizations have also been found in Belgium, Germany, France and the UK. They have very closed and hierarchical structures with their own specialists, including electricians, plumbers and gardeners, and exploit illegal immigrant labor for other tasks.
The European cannabis market “has changed radically,” the Europol report concludes. “Now more marijuana than hashish is consumed in the European Union. More and more, the marijuana is produced in the same country in which it is sold and consumed. As its production increases, signs of it being exported to neighboring countries have also appeared.”