“If you take weed out of the club you keep it in your underpants; the police are usually at the door waiting for you.” This is the golden rule that a member of one of the cannabis clubs in Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood explains to a new member. The city’s local police force, the Guardia Urbana, has declared war on these consumer associations that have proliferated in the city. Local consumers are joined by a veritable army of tourists who consider Barcelona as a model of maximum tolerance for marijuana consumption. The legal battle against these clubs has been going on for months. Now EL PAÍS has contacted several clubs that have come under pressure and see their continued existence as increasingly complicated after a ban on the “consumption, sale and cultivation” of marijuana in these spaces. While some clubs follow a strict code of good practice, others disregard the regulations created by the associations and focus on making money from selling marijuana to tourists.
In 1991, the first cannabis club in Spain was founded in Barcelona. The entity’s board of directors was convicted of a public health offense, but it paved the way for other clubs and, in 2011, these associations began to mushroom across the city. Today, in the Catalan capital, there are more than 200. In the region of Catalonia, that number soars to 1,000 and in Spain 2,000. Barcelona’s mayor between 2011 and 2015, Xavier Trias, passed legislation at the end of his term to curb the spread of these clubs. In 2016, Aida Colau’s left-wing local government issued an urban planning ordinance that stipulated minimum distances of between 100 and 150 meters between these clubs and playgrounds or schools. Shortly after, in June 2017, the regional government approved a law that protected the activity of cannabis clubs. This law stipulated that the clubs could not make a profit, members had to be of legal age and have the support of another member to join. The regional regulation also stipulated that clubs could only grow 150 kilos of marijuana per year and each user could lay claim to a maximum of 60 grams per month.
It was also mandatory to consume these substances inside the club. But all these regulations were thrown out when, in September 2018, the Constitutional Court annulled the Catalan law on cannabis consumers. It was emphasized that cannabis is a narcotic and the only body that could regulate it was a criminal one and the matter was, therefore, in the hands of the central government. In July 2021, Catalonia’s Superior Court of Justice annulled Colau’s municipal ordinance and directly banned “promoting consumption, sale and cultivation” in these spaces. From that point on, the Guardia Urbana has been putting the squeeze on the clubs.
Benito Granados, head of the Guardia Urbana, is clear that “these clubs are only allowed to exercise the role of offering information or advice.” “To enforce the sentences,” the Guardia Urbana is allocating extra resources to crack down on the sale and consumption of marijuana in the clubs, he says. In 2022, 13 cannabis clubs were closed plus 33 plantations that supplied them. In 2023, six clubs and nine plantations have been closed to date. “Closing a cannabis club is not simple,” says Granados. “You have to go through administrative channels, and it can take more than a year. It means looking at everything painstakingly to find out whether or not they comply with small fire prevention regulations and licenses etc, then the decisions are reached by the corresponding city district. Criminally, we depend on authorizations from the courts.” Other sources within the Guardia Urbana also told EL PAÍS that in the last municipal coalition government, the pressure on clubs depended on who governed each district: Colau’s left-wing councilors were more permissive while the socialists took it upon themselves to target the clubs by looking for administrative and licensing problems.
EL PAÍS has contacted more than a dozen associations only to receive the same response over and again: “We don’t want to get into trouble or point the finger at the City Council.” Finally, last Thursday, EL PAÍS managed to gain access at midday to a cannabis club in the Eixample neighborhood with the promise not to reveal its exact location.
The exterior of the club offers no clue as to what kind of activity is going on inside. Once you ring the bell and go in, there’s a counter where you present your membership documents. Then there’s another door. Behind it is a bar with televisions, music and a small dispensary. There, behind a display case similar to the display case for tapas, there is a menu with more than 50 types of marijuana. “In Barcelona, the most commonly used is Amnesia, but in Bilbao, for example, people smoke Critica,” says the bartender. He knows his stuff and explains which strains of cannabis are good for relaxation, which encourage creativity and so forth. When asked which could be considered the caviar of marijuana, he points to two types: Apple Fritter (with 23% THC) and Kosher Dawgs (24%). There is a non-stop stream of people coming into the club, paying between €7 and €20 for marijuana that is weighed by the bartender. They then sit down to smoke.
Albert Tió is inside the club. This cannabis activist went to prison in 2020 to serve five years after the Airam cannabis association, of which he was the secretary, was busted. Tió was one of the heads of Catalonia’s Federation of Self-Regulated Cannabis Associations (Fedcac). He was a promoter of this popular initiative approved by Parliament and, now a third grade prisoner, he has founded the Green Light Cannabis Party. “Consumption and self-cultivation should not be punished which means collective cultivation shouldn’t be either,” he says. “That is the basis of cannabis clubs. The clubs are safe places to consume with damage control as well as product quality control. Our party has a clear objective: regulation. If the clubs are outlawed, the only alternative is retail. The activist admits that there are associations that act like “mafias” and do not comply with the rules, especially the one that states that members should wait 15 days after registration before accessing the marijuana dispensary, thus avoiding cannabis tourism. He also criticizes those who have recruiters who are often on the prowl along the Rambla to attract visitors.
Meanwhile, Eric Asensio of the Federation of Cannabis Associations of Catalonia (CATFAC) maintains that the clubs are prepared for the authorities’ offensive. “If they close associations by suspending licenses, we will resort to the defense for administrative disputes and if it is through the criminal route, we will always resort to the idea of shared consumption before the courts,” he says.
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