Between collective organisation and commercialisation

The Cannabis Social Clubs at the cross-roads
Martín Barriuso Alonso
Thursday, August 9, 2012

fumadores-cannabisThe last few years have witnessed a boom in new cannabis user associations in Spain. Although there are no reliable figures for them, most are known to have been created for the collective cultivation of marihuana crops, and are now several hundred-strong. They are mainly found in Catalonia, which is also home to the largest of them: some have existed for only a short time but already have several thousand members.

Two kinds of cannabis clubs are developing in this community and it is here that the difference between them can most clearly be seen. At least on paper, both models adopt the same legal structure and maintain that they have similar aims. But such similarities in form cannot conceal profound differences in function, to the extent that they are now described as Cannabis Commercial Clubs, as against Cannabis Social Clubs.

An unexpected debate

The village of Rasquera, where 56.3 per cent of those who voted in the referendum were in favour of the anti-crisis plan approved by the town council at its plenary meeting on February 29, which includes a marihuana plantation.

The rise in cannabis clubs of all kinds, with well-known initiatives like the currently frustrated plantation in Rasquera (in Tarragona), has forced the hand of Catalonia’s autonomous government. It has announced that it will set up a commission to debate the regulation of the associations, following a similar move in the Basque Country. This has resulted in an active debate within the cannabis users associations, and also between them, as they bring different approaches to the debate.

The Catalonian authorities seem comfortable with the Cannabis Social Club model promoted by the Federation of Cannabis Users Associations (FAC), whose members are small associations which produce marihuana for their own use. However, the larger clubs are not federation members. These clubs, which could be generally described as “membership-only coffee-shops”, are gaining ground thanks to their high budgets and their links with part of the cannabis industry, and the Catalonian authorities might eventually incline towards a model that is large-scale but easier to keep an eye on: it is far cheaper to watch fifty large associations than five hundred small ones.

The FAC has opted to maintain the social club model, as the one that provides the best defence of users’ rights, democratic and transparent administration and risk reduction. Given the threat of the clubs’ becoming commercial and ending up as pseudo catering companies with a membership card, the focus is moving to a model which until very recently had barely been suggested, but which has demonstrated a number of virtues that have made it a point of reference for the question of fair and effective drug policies.

Learning on the way 

Although the expression “Spanish model” is now commonly used when referring to the Cannabis Social Clubs, the model is not based on any specific regulations, as Spain’s law on illegal drugs is unclear. In fact, the clubs grew gradually out of some of the principles gathered piecemeal from the Supreme Court’s position on “shared consumption”. This was not a ruling on cannabis, but mainly developed out of sentences given to groups of heroin and cocaine users who got together to buy from the black market and then shared the drug between them.

It is difficult to make cannabis cultivation fit into the ruling, since unlike heroin and cocaine, cannabis is not bought exclusively on the black market but is easy for people to grow by themselves, so has to be stored in amounts considered likely to be used for trafficking. In fact, any amount greater than the equivalent of a few days’ personal consumption is generally assumed to be intended for drug-dealing.

The FAC member associations have taken the principles of shared consumption, their own practical experience, relevant court rulings and consultations with various bodies and used the information to develop a working model which is democratic, functions as a cooperative, is self-policing, transparent and is open to public inspection: a model known as a cannabis social club.

The formula was not thought out beforehand however, but was developed to take advantage of legal loopholes. Early on, when the Catalonian association ARSEC decided to grow crops collectively for its members, the initiative was described as “the Catalonian breakthrough*“, suggesting that ARSEC was in some way opening the breach in the walls of prohibition. But it was not so much an attempt to establish a predefined model as to see how far the current legal framework would stretch, given the difficulties involved in amending drug treaties.

Seeking the legal formula 

The CSCs have developed through trying to fill the gaps in the law, but it is not clear what leeway these provide. The precedent on shared consumption establishes a series of conditions if the activity is not to be considered an offence: the people involved must be individuals, be part of a closed circuit and be regular consumers, none may make a profit from the activity and the amounts distributed must be for almost immediate use.

Clearly these conditions do not clear up all doubts. How many people can be in the closed circuit, since the point is to avoid the indiscriminate distribution of the drug? This is one of the issues to be thought out, but clearly a private group cannot expand indefinitely. The vast size of some of the clubs created in recent years give rise to reasonable doubt. Can a circuit with 10,000 active members be really closed?

What is clear is that current Spanish law does not allow any commercial cannabis distribution system open to the general public. So opening a Dutch-style coffee shop in Spain would be a crime. With that option out of the question, the anti-prohibition movement concentrated on developing a non-commercial system to be more compatible with the interests and needs of cannabis users. If it had not had to deal with these constraints, the movement for making marijuana use a normal activity would have started with the business sectors and not the activisits, and the model would undoubtedly have been very different and in the opinion of the FAC, far less satisfactory for the individual consumer.

No trade, less risk 

Martín Barriuso presented the CSC model to the European Commission (Pictured here: Dana Spinant, representing the EC, in a debate with Barriuso).

From the creation of the first CSC back in 2001, it has been clear that this model perfectly covers members’ consumption needs, providing them with quality-assured cannabis, at reasonable prices and not acquired from the black market shaped by prohibition. There are other models which could give the same guarantees, but the ten years’ of practical experience demonstrate that the very fact that this is not a commercial model offers a series of further advantages, especially the management of the risks associated with consumption.

For a start, the absence of a profit motive reduces the risk of promoting the crop for commercial purposes. The fact that a CSC is a closed circle and can only be joined through an invitation from a member means that there is no point in advertising the club. Members develop links which are not usually found among clients of a commercial enterprise, particularly if they are occasional customers. In various associations the members evidently feel a sense of community which encourages them to take care of each other and share information with their peers, which helps reduce risks.

As the collective is small and members know and trust each other and there is a detailed register of each member’s use, it is easier to detect questionable consumption. If a member is suspected of being troublesome as a result of using cannabis, the club members talk to the person involved to bring to his or her attention the changes they have seen in behaviour and consumption patterns and apply a protocol. The clubs in the Basque country bring in a specialist in drug dependence hired to deal with the problem and who treats the person free of charge if he or she wishes. No coffee shop, bar, or tobacco shop offers similar services.

Spanish law governing associations stipulates that the members’ general assembly is the highest decision-taking body. Each member becomes part of the assembly on joining the association. The board of directors has to submit a balance of accounts and management to the assembly every year and members must vote to approve it. This ensures a level of transparency and gives members a degree of influence which would be impossible in a commercial society in which they would be no more than clients. And the larger the company involved in the production and distribution, the harder it is to audit the substance and the risks entailed, something only too obvious in the tobacco industry.

Self-organisation of consumption 

The Basque branch of the FAC, (EUSFAC), asked two prestigious university professors of criminal law to give a legal ruling on the issue. Both of them (Juan Muñoz, who wrote the previous report in 2001, and José Luis Díez Ripollés) teach at Malaga University. The report, which has not yet been published, refers to the Cannabis Social Clubs as forms of “self organisation of consumption” which are neither crimes nor an administrative offence provided that they adhere to certain limits explained above.

The report makes it clear that current legislation makes no specific reference to cannabis distribution which is not through the democratic and participatory organisation of the users themselves. Unless the criminal code and the interpretation of it changes, Spain has no place for commercial enterprises, like some of the larger “clubs”, however they may try to hide behind the facade of an association.

Díez Ripollés and Muñoz have proposed a specific legal formula for the CSC: the creation of producer and consumer cooperative societies, in the terms of Law 27/1999 (the Cooperatives Act). Such cooperatives will be non-profit and will have regular members, employee members and associate members. The cannabis must be supplied from the legal market and as far as possible the club must encourage its members to consume it responsibly. The FAC clearly opts for this kind of democratic and non-profit formula, balancing producers’ and consumers’ interests and rights, rather than other types of organisation which give priority to the financial interests of a minority who distribute what others produce with generally little concern for the final impact of their merchandise. There are already many products subjected to the so-called “markets” and the disastrous consequences of organising people’s lives in terms of business and profits become clearer every day. May cannabis be spared that fate.

* Borrallo, F. (1997), “La brecha catalana. Modelo propuesto por la Asociación Ramon Santos de Estudios sobre el Cannabis (ARSEC)”, Cañamo: La revista de la cultura del cannabis, nº. 1, págs. 50-51;

Martín Barriuso Alonso is a representative of the Federation of Cannabis Users’ Associations (FAC) and is the author of the briefing Cannabis social clubs in Spain: A normalizing alternative underway, Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 9
January 2011

See also Barriuso’s previous blog: Cannabis reaches parliament: The debate on regulating Cannabis Social Clubs in the Basque country, TNI weblog, June 26th, 2012.