Spain’s Socialist Party votes against legalizing cannabis for recreational use

The governing party joined right-wing groups in opposing a measure that is backed by its own coalition partner Unidas Podemos and other parliamentary allies

A store selling cannabis-related products in Madrid.
A store selling cannabis-related products in Madrid.Luis Sevillano

The issue of the legalization of marijuana has revealed divisions in the Spanish government, which is headed by a center-left coalition of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and junior partner Unidas Podemos. The PSOE on Tuesday voted against a proposal to legalize cannabis for recreational use, even though this meant aligning itself with the conservative Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox, which also opposed the measure. Thanks to the unlikely agreement among these groups, the proposal was defeated overwhelmingly, with 75 votes in favor, 263 against and nine abstentions.

The PSOE is only willing to consider legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes, an issue that is set to be examined by a recently formed subcommittee of the lower house of parliament, the Congress of Deputies. With respect to decriminalizing cannabis for recreational use, the PSOE’s objection on Tuesday was almost as categorical as that of the right. “This is not a question of the right or the left, it is a question of public health,” said PSOE lawmaker Daniel Vicente in Congress, adding: “We are a government party.”

The proposal to legalize marijuana for recreational use was put forward by the leftist group Más País, which is led by Íñigo Errejón. “This is about regulating what is already normal on the street,” Errejón told Congress. “I don’t know what country you live in, but I know the country I live in, and in this one, whoever wants to consume marijuana does so, even if it is prohibited.”

The Más País leader argued that banning marijuana only leads to “more consumption, more crime and more damage to health,” while legalizing the drug would take the business out of “the hands of the mafias.” By making it legal, he argued, the sale of marijuana would be subject to health controls, and Spain would be promoting a legal economic activity that has been very lucrative in countries such as Canada, where it has been legal since 2018. In defense of the measure, he cited a report from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, which estimated that the legalization of marijuana could create up to 100,000 jobs given a business volume of €3.3 billion. The Más País leader accused opponents of the initiative, in particular, the PSOE of “hypocrisy.”

Más País leader Iñigo Errejón (l) and lawmaker Inés Sabanés, from the same party, in Congress on Tuesday.
Más País leader Iñigo Errejón (l) and lawmaker Inés Sabanés, from the same party, in Congress on Tuesday.FERNANDO VILLAR (EFE)

The proposal was supported on Tuesday by leftist and regional groups, including Unidas Podemos, the Basque party EH Bildu, Canary Coalition (CC), Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG) and the pro-Catalan independence parties the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). Unidas Podemos and the ERC have also announced similar proposals to legalize marijuana that will be brought before Congress. The center-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), which voted in favor of the initiative, accused the leftist parties of “racing” to be the first to put forward the idea, a criticism that was repeated by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), which abstained.

The PSOE’s decision to vote against legalizing marijuana not only put it at odds with its coalition partner, but also with its allies in parliament. As the leader of a minority government, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, of the PSOE, needs the support of other parties to pass key legislation, such as the budget. Votes from the ERC, for example, were key to the approval of the 2020 budget, as well as swearing in Sánchez as prime minister.

Despite this, the PSOE was categorical in its rejection of the proposal with Socialist lawmaker Vicente criticizing Errejón for wanting to legalize a drug with potentially harmful psychological effects, while at the same time demanding better public policies to protect mental health. The right-wing parties in Congress were equally critical of the measure. “Consuming drugs is neither a fundamental right nor a freedom,” said PP lawmaker Elvira Velasco, while Vox deputy Juan Luis Steegmann, a doctor by profession, described the negative effects of cannabis use on health. “Instead of Más País you should call yourselves Más Hachís [more hashish],” he joked.

The divisions within the coalition government were evident on Tuesday, but both parties avoided open attacks. Unidas Podemos lawmaker Lucía Muñoz simply told the PSOE that it will not be able to escape a debate on the issue – two more proposals on the legalization of marijuana are set to be brought before Congress.

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