New government in Spain: An opportunity for cannabis legalization?

Pedro Sanchez is the new and unexpected president of Spain. Among his supporters, some openly call for the legalization of cannabis. Is this really an opportunity for things to change?
Martín Barriuso
Friday, August 10, 2018

spain legalizeOn June 1, Pedro Sanchez became Spain’s first president to be elected through a no-confidence motion. A few days after the Popular Party was condemned for corruption, the socialist candidate won the support of an unlikely confluence of theoretically incompatible groups. Will this unexpected change serve to unblock the debate on the regulation of cannabis? For years, a long list of corruption cases has been gradually damaging the image of the Popular Party (PP), an organization which until recently drew together almost all the conservative electorate in Spain.

Dozens of scandals for crimes such as kickback schemes, money laundering, and bribery involving PP members have been cumulating in different levels of the administration, reaching so far over 500 convictions. Among all these cases, there have been several corrupt plots, such as the Barcenas and Gurtel cases, where well-organized networks were conceived with the aim of illegally financing the party as well as facilitating bonuses to high-ranking officials, including Mariano Rajoy himself.

The fall of the Popular Party

The deteriorated image of the PP has decreased their electoral support and facilitated the rise of Ciudadanos, a neocon-inspired party that grew up in the heat of the judicial cases that were corroding the PP image.

In light of this, the Rajoy government resisted again and again until a sentence was reached in the Gurtel case, where the PP became the first political party in Spain to ever be convicted of corruption. The judges considered that the party was enriched “to the detriment of the interests of the State”.

This explicit sentence was the perfect excuse for socialist leader Pedro Sanchez (who reached the leadership of his party by militating against the apparatus that controlled the party for almost forty years and that excluded him from becoming party leader) filed a no-confidence motion against Rajoy.

To everybody’s surprise, a few days later Sanchez obtained majority support in Congress. He achieved this thanks to the backing of Catalan pro-independence parties ERC and PDCat, with which his party is clearly confronted on the issue of the Catalonian referendum. And, without anyone expecting it, Rajoy fell and a new political stage opened in Spain.

In a few days, Sanchez threw a bombshell by assembling a government where, for the first time in the history of Spain, women are the majority and important figures were recruited, such as former President of the European Parliament Josep Borrell, judge-star Fernando Grande-Marlaska and astronaut Pedro Duque.

Sanchez has made it clear that his government was not assembled to muddle through, but wants instead to start reversing right away many of the reforms that the PP took forward in recent years.

The OECCC goes after a commission on cannabis

Incidentally, just a couple of days before the no-confidence motion against Mariano Rajoy, the European Observatory of Cannabis Culture and Use (OECCC) presented a proposal to the different parliamentary groups of Congress to open once and for all a discussion dedicated to study a possible regulation of cannabis that goes beyond medical use.

The OECCC proposal text, stamped by the parties who received it.

The observatory signed last February a collaboration agreement with the Gremi Growshops Catalonia Association and the Federation of Cannabis Associations of Catalonia (CatFAC) aimed at “implementing the debate on comprehensive and multilateral regulation of cannabis”.

They were already talking about the need to give a presentation on cannabis at the Mixed Drug Commission, independent of the subcommission that was created in the Health Commission to discuss medical cannabis.

The OECCC stroke an important blow by getting, in record time, all the parliamentary groups to accept that the legislation “must adapt to the new social reality and provide alternatives to consumers against the black market”.

This demand coincides with a time when public opinion is very alarmed by the rise of the mafias that traffic Moroccan hashish in the Strait of Gibraltar. The escalation of violence brought about by these groups greatly worries the local authorities, which fear that the situation worsens and reaches a similar point to that of Galicia in the 90s with the cocaine cartels.

This presentation has already been requested at different times by various parliamentary groups, but it just does not get going due to conflictual interests among the different parties, which until now have not agreed on its implementation. As I mentioned in a previous post, the creation of this presentation seems an essential step for any regulatory proposal to have the potential to move forward.

Podemos leader defends cannabis legalization

Just three weeks after Sanchez was sworn in as president, Podemos secretary general, Pablo Iglesias, praised Canada’s decision to legalize cannabis for recreational purposes and suggested that Spain should  become “reference” when exporting cannabis to other countries.

Podemos is the main exponent, along with Ciudadanos, of the so-called “new parties”, forces born of the erosion of the bipartisan model that has taken hold in Spain since the democratic elections were recovered in 1977.

In the last elections, Podemos formed a coalition with Izquierda Unida (IU), a political force that for years has clearly committed to ending cannabis prohibition. Nonetheless, given the fact that Podemos (which for long has kept a rather moderate posture concerning this issue) has more influence than the IU, the coalition’s position in regards to cannabis has thus been ambiguous.

But this time Podemos spokesperson decided to go much further, a move that can be interpreted as a bet to put the subject once and for all on his party’s agenda. Iglesias said “enough of hypocrisy”, pointing at the fact that “buying gin, rum, tequila, or vodka” at the supermarket “is legal”, while “buying marihuana is not”.

He also believes that one of the advantages of regulating cannabis would be “not having to dedicate police expenses to the pursuit of illegal trafficking, which is what generates crime and exploitation”.

Iglesias’ statements provoked numerous reactions. Among them, of course, there were enthusiastic supporters, outright rejections and some satires, going through the supposed experts repeating the usual topics about the dangers of cannabis.

However, it is worth noting the large coverage that the media gave to the proposal, without implying that they agreed with it. Proposing the legalization of cannabis is no longer perceived as a whimsical and simple idea, more and more social and political sectors believe that the legislation is outdated, and that Spain is in danger of being left out of a movement of change to which it has inadvertently contributed, and that different alternatives ought to be discussed.

Unidos Podemos is aware of this, and it is possible that they include the subject  as part of a long list they want Pedro Sanchez to address in exchange for the support the left is giving to him.

Broken consensus – How Spain regionally handles cannabis

A socialist government is no novelty in the recent history of Spain. Of the forty years since the democratic constitution was approved, half have been under such governments. These never departed from international orthodoxy and were part of the de facto consensus that has blocked any significant change in national drug policies.

This has not always been the case at the municipal and regional levels, where the PSOE has supported very interesting experiments, such as heroin dispensing programs or regulations on cannabis clubs, but the central apparatus of the PSOE has prevented time and again that those advances become part of national policy. Therefore, the fact that Sanchez rules does not guarantee that there will be any change.

However, the truth is that the prohibitionist consensus that had been maintained since the Transition is breaking down. More and more voices are talking about the need for change, especially in the case of cannabis. Emerging parties such as Podemos and Ciudadanos are not for maintaining a repressive consensus, which they know is disliked by a significant part of the voters, especially the youngest ones.

In this context, it is very significant that the OECCC has managed that all parliamentary groups get and become aware of their proposal to create a presentation, despite the short notice with which they requested the meetings and that this happened during the week in which the PP government would end up falling.

Something like that was unthinkable until recently. It is a sign that cannabis is increasingly present in the political agenda, that parties are aware that the legislation is outdated and, above all, that it is rejected by the majority of the population, a trend that is expected to increase in the future. The time to change has come and they know it.

Given how precarious the support of the new government is, it does not seem likely that what remains of this legislature will be enough for any important change in cannabis policy to take place. However, if the study that so many people ask for is carried out, the elaboration of new regulation would move forward and could be approved immediately after the 2020 elections.