Cannabis reaches parliament

The debate on regulating Cannabis Social Clubs in the Basque country
Martín Barriuso Alonso
Tuesday, June 26, 2012

martin-barriuso-pass-flatOn 19 June, 2012, the Ganjazz Art Club in Donostia, one of the oldest Cannabis Social Clubs in Spain, received a visit that was unimaginable a few years earlier: a group of members of the autonomous regional Basque parliament on official business. Its goal was to find out how one of these cannabis users’ associations, that have proliferated over the past few years, operates.

The group was made up of members of a parliamentary commission who, since 24 April 2012, have been studying a possible regulation of cannabis clubs’ activities. It included representatives from the parliament’s four main parties (PNV, PSE, PP and Aralar). As well as visiting the social headquarters of Ganjazz and finding out how the distribution of cannabis derivatives is carried out amongst members, the delegation also went on a tour of the facilities where the marijuana is grown.

Jokes were made and the members of parliament ended up having their photos taken in front of some cannabis plants. This all took place in a very relaxed atmosphere, reflecting the surprising unanimity with which the regulation proposal was approved in the regional parliament. On the few occasions that the cannabis debate reaches the political agenda, the substance and its possible legalization tend to be the object of heated and unspecific polemics, something which has not happened in this instance. 

Fifteen years of debate 

It has taken fifteen years of a combination of political lobbying and grassroots movements to achieve this result. The cannabis movement first went to the Basque Parliament in 1997, with a delegation of the Kalamudia association that had just successfully carried out its first collective and public cannabis plantation. The association called for greater precision in the law - considered to be too ambiguous - in order to be able to carry out individual and collective cultivation for personal consumption, something that in theory has been decriminalised in Spain.

At that first hearing no concrete decisions were reached. The members of the Commission on Drug Dependence admitted their surprise at the seriousness of the approach of the still emerging cannabis movement (perhaps because they were expecting a bunch of loonies). However the demands of the anti-prohibitionists remained vague, and the debate was still in its very early stages. Kalamudia set up two more public marijuana plantations and, since there was no official reaction, ended up dissolving in 2001 giving way to local associations that began to cultivate for their members using a system that would become the Cannabis Social Clubs’ model.

Over the course of the following decade, the first Basque clubs (in actual fact the first to operate in the whole of Spain) began to take shape confronting the thousands of practical questions that arose, such as the insecurity created by the lack of regulation, resulting in recurrent police intervention. To give us an idea of what this represents: when the EUSFAC (Basque Federation of Associations of Cannabis Consumers), the Basque branch of the FAC was created in 2011, of the ten original associations, nine had experienced one or more legal interventions since their creation.

Martín Barriuso, left, and members of Pannagh show the cannabis returned by the court / P. URRESTI

During the associations’ growth and professionalisation process control of the production and distribution systems had to be sharpened and an informal debate was generated on various levels. Participants in the discussion came from different sectors and included members of the police force wanting clear criteria for their work, municipalities who looked favourably on the CSC’s activities as an alternative to the black market, and a long list of organisations and institutions. There was also an important debate in the media, especially following the first intervention against the Pannagh association, between 2005 and 2007, when for the first time marijuana that had previously been confiscated was returned to its owner, in this case a cannabis club.

A public control model 

The result was that the cannabis movement’s next visit to the Basque Parliament, in November 2010, was far more concrete and fruitful. Almost fifteen years of collective cultivation, media campaigns and favourable court judgements yielded a result: the cannabis clubs now knew that asking the parliamentary groups for debate would no longer take them by surprise.

The petitions were very specific: to create a section in the Register of Associations for this kind of club, with economic control mechanisms to ensure they were non-profit; inspections by the authorities (police, health or agricultural) to control the quantity and destination of the crop, and authorisations for controlled transportation from the plantations to the distribution points. In short, a combination of verification tools already used to control activities such as selling second-hand objects or transporting dangerous goods.

Of course, missing from this list are demands around personal consumption and cultivation, but this is due to the regional parliament’s lack of legal authority to address such issues. The control of illegal drugs is the purview of central government, the body that is able to modify the Criminal Code or the Narcotic Drugs Act. However, given that the Basque Government has a police force under its command, the Ertzaintza, with authority and responsibility in the fight against drug trafficking, what it can do is to create its own regulation to develop specific aspects of regional law.

In this context, the Basque Parliament, in the text of the non-legislative motion that led to the creation of the regulation proposal, acknowledged that "the absence of regulation of their activity places these associations in a situation of illegality with a lack of legal security, a situation which must be corrected". The aim is to clarify and resolve the issues in the legislation that create problems for those responsible for enforcing the law in the Basque country.

Obvious contradictions

The ararteko, Iñigo Lamarca, in favour of regulating the cannabis socual clubs.

However, the movement’s appearance in the Basque Parliament of 2010 was not in itself sufficient for parliament to take action. The crucial factor was the call by the Ararteko, the ombudsman of the Basque people, for a forum in which to discuss this issue. The forum took place in October 2011 and was attended by various institutions including prosecutors, Basque regional police, local police, the Basque Government, judges, as well as several academics and representatives of the associations themselves. Most of the meeting took place behind closed doors, which enabled the debate to be taken to a more concrete level and address very sensitive aspects of the issue.

Another key element seems to have been the police operation carried out against the Pannagh association in which three people were arrested, including the author of this paper, just three weeks after the forum was held. The association was closed down, its accounts blocked, and its near three hundred members had to go back to the black market. As I had just been spokesman for the associations in that forum, and since in my speech I specifically addressed the risk of something like this happening, news of the arrests ended the doubts of some political groups and a few days later the initiative of creating the regulation proposal arose.

The commission has already heard from the first expert witnesses from a long list of about 60 people including representatives of local, state and European institutions, prosecutors, judges and various experts from the legal and medical fields, as well as the associations themselves. No doubt the debate will be comprehensive, but there is a risk of lack of focus, turning into a general debate on cannabis and not on the specific issue of the clubs.

This initiative will undoubtedly meet resistance from various authorities. For now, the Anti-Drug Chief Prosecutor José Ramón Noreña has already made several declarations in which he made it clear that in his opinion there is no legal gap whatsoever, that the associations are financed by drug trafficking and that the Basque parliament has no authority in this area (3). The response of Rajoy’s government remains to be seen, but the fact that the Basque proposal is chaired by a senior member of its party holds the promise that there is a certain margin in which to find some regulatory formula acceptable to the more prohibitionist sectors, which currently dominate the PP (People’s Party). In fact, it is quite possible there could be a regressive step in the shape of a clearer but more prohibitive regulation of drugs.

Another model for a debate that cannot be postponed 

The initiative in the Basque parliament has had extensive media coverage both inside and outside of the Basque Country, and has generated considerable debate. Some authorities on the drug issue in several autonomous regions have already expressed their categorical rejection of the possibility of regulating cannabis clubs, but there have been movements in other areas. In Catalonia for example, it seems that at the time of writing, the parties may have already reached an agreement to undertake a similar debate. There have also been signs of interest in the debate from the European Commission and the UN.

Although it is still early to say whether the proposal will have any concrete results, especially now that the Basque Government has become a minority and there is much talk of early elections, it is clear that the controversy generated will create further movement. Now that the debate on drug prohibition is a hot topic, and with other regulatory initiatives already under way in Uruguay, there are three possible models of regulation on the table: the commercial model, similar to the Dutch coffee shop system; the state model, promoted by the Uruguayan government; and the associative model, currently under debate in the Basque country.

One can no longer speak of a lack of concrete alternatives. We may soon have the opportunity to compare the advantages and disadvantages of three legal models that do not involve prohibition and repression. Not a bad start.