The present continuous of cannabis clubs in Catalonia

The complexity of the issue and the lack of specific regulations mean that cases unprotected by the law still keep appearing
Sustainable Drug Policies Commission
Saturday, 30 March, 2013

solo-sociosThe exponential proliferation of the number of associations, clubs and other groups that distribute cannabis among their members and create new spaces for socialising, has surprised even the most optimistic advocates of more reasonable drug policies. In a short time, and in spite of those in government, civil society has provided a response to a problem that realpolitik has been unable to tackle.

One of the legal foundations of this cannabis movement is that the use of illicit drugs has never been a crime under Spanish law. Given this fact, it is ironic that Portugal is repeatedly cited as the great success story in the decriminalisation of drug use.

Spanish people spend 1,163 million euros a year on cannabis, according to a study by a firm of lawyers connected with the Rasquera project. The study points out that if all cannabis was bought by associations of this sort, which pay VAT, it would bring the state 200 million euros in tax revenue. Furthermore, making it legal to grow cannabis could create some 40,000 jobs, leading to revenue of around 400 million euros in social security and income tax contributions. These figures have not been plucked out of the air. According to the Spanish national drugs agency (National Plan on Drugs), the latest available figures from 2011 show that 27.4% of the Spanish population had tried cannabis at least once in their lives; 9.6% had used it in the last 12 months and 7% in the last 30 days, while 1.7% of Spanish people had used cannabis every day for the last 30 days. In absolute numbers, this means that more than 3 million Spanish people use cannabis at least once a month and more than 700,000 use it every day.

The events of the last year – including the failed attempt at collective planting in Rasquera, the announcement by the Ministry of Home Affairs that the public safety law would be altered, the regulation process in the Basque Country, and the vote in Congress against the petition brought by the ERC on cannabis regulation by the Spanish state – have pushed the debate on cannabis to the forefront of media and political attention. Consequently, the autonomous Catalan government has been obliged to make a move. Six months ago, it announced that a commission would be set up to discuss possible regulations for associations of this type. This has given rise to an important debate among and between the people affected, and a growing interest in the outcome of this process on the part of the international community.

Many of the cannabis associations are concentrated in Catalonia, particularly in the city of Barcelona, where the largest clubs and associations are based, some of which now have several thousand members.

Difference between types of cannabis groups: associations, clubs, etc.

The two Catalan cannabis federations at a joint press conference in the Hemp Museum in Barcelona

The Ciutat-Vella district at the heart of the city of Barcelona, where more than 70 cannabis clubs and associations coexist, is where an intense process of proliferation and differentiation is taking place, leading to the creation of different types of overlapping cannabis groups. At least on paper, all the models adopt the same legal structure and purport to defend similar aims. They are associations. Nevertheless, this formal similarity does not manage to hide the differences in their modus operandi. This means that there is confusion in the terminology used to refer to the different cannabis groups. And that is why we will refer here to associations, clubs and “free groups”.

We use the term associations to refer to the groups affiliated to the Federation of Cannabis Associations (FAC) or its Catalonian equivalent CATFAC, which call themselves Cannabis Social Clubs (CSC). The category “social” is confusing unless what the social element consists of is defined, and that is why we prefer to talk about cannabis associations. The word “club” points more to the commercial sector and indicates that they are similar to the Dutch coffee shops. Finally, by “free groups” we understand an amalgam of associations that are cultural, artistic, concerned with natural food, etc, and that distribute cannabis to their members.

To start with, the people involved in setting up and implementing the associations were anti-prohibitionist activists with a track record of campaigning, with the support of various types of legal professionals, some of them associated with the world of activism. In a very short time, others appeared on stage, including more lawyers. The model forged by the activists became very popular and was reinterpreted by more entrepreneurial people involved in the cannabis industry, or activists who disagreed with the model developed by their activist predecessors. Furthermore, the possibility of setting up an association in such an open and cosmopolitan city as Barcelona has attracted people from all over the world with a knowledge of and interest in models of cannabis regulation. They have advocated for models different from the one initially designed by the FAC.

There are no official figures available, but the latest estimates indicate that there are about 300 cannabis groups in Catalonia today. Within the diversity of groups, there are two federations which between them bring together about 10-20% of all the existing groups. One is CATFAC, which is affiliated to the FAC and has links with organisations such as ENCOD. The other is FEDCAC, which brings together some of the clubs with the most members on the Catalan scene. Given the lack of specific regulations governing these groups’ activities, in the midst of these two defined models we find an infinite number of proposals. The position of these federations is explicit; the stance taken by the rest of the groups is hard to know.

CATFAC maintains a more cooperative-style model in which the members of the association are involved in decision-making, and this means that there are fewer members. FEDCAC argues for an “advanced coffee shop model,” in the words of the lawyers involved, although others see it as a “more commercial model.” The case of Rasquera would represent the prime example of this model in practice (see the 30-minute documentary), since it aimed at a legal agreement with a local administration allowing it to grow the marihuana that is then used by its members, thus getting around the “back door” problem that affects the Dutch model. The difference with a coffee shop is that only members are allowed in to the group’s meeting place.

At the start of 2013, prior to the San Canuto cannabis festival on 19 January, the two federations held a joint press conference at the Hemp Museum in Barcelona. There they announced the manifestation on the 19th and presented a manifesto signed by 50 groups calling for the government to issue regulations on personal cannabis use. It is significant that the argument presented at the press conference was that the cannabis groups represent 100,000 people, although only between 200 and 300 attended the manifestation.


The case of Rasquera has been up before the courts since March 2012, but the Tarragona public prosecutor’s office is expected to complete its investigation into the legality of the contract between the local government and the cannabis club by the end of March 2013. The dispute is expected to be resolved before the summer. Meanwhile, the mayor of Rasquera, Bernat Pellissa, has been gathering the support of other mayors for his proposal to regulate the growing of cannabis, and he plans to present a proposal on cannabis regulation to Catalonia’s Parliament.

In the other autonomous parliament where cannabis associations are being discussed openly, that of the Basque Country, the elections initially scheduled for 2013 were held in October 2012. This put on hold the initiative launched in 2012 to consider a regulatory response to the activities of the so-called cannabis social clubs. Recently the regional parliament announced that the political will is there to take up this procedure once again.

The complexity of the issue and the lack of specific regulations mean that there are still cases where the law does not provide protection in the event of visits by the police and even criminals. This situation also means that the people responsible for the different associations keep accusing each other of bad practices. Recently court rulings again absolved people responsible for cannabis groups, following police raids in Madrid and Zaragoza. The judge ordered the cannabis confiscated by the police to be returned.

It is worth adding that the cannabis fair known as “Spannabis” was held for the tenth time in Cornellà del Llobregat in February. It attracted about 30,000 people, many of whom queued for hours to be able to enter, which shows the high level of civil society interest in the subject. Few of the ordinary fairs held on a yearly basis manage to attract so many people to Barcelona, a city whose economy is highly dependent on the economic benefits generated by sectoral fairs.

Catalan Forum of Cannabis Associations and Clubs

Working groups at the Catalan Forum of Cannabis Associations and Clubs

In September last year, the Sustainable Drug Policies discussion platform organised the Catalan Forum of Cannabis Associations and Clubs with the aim of addressing the socio-political situation of the cannabis groups. The Forum was a meeting and discussion space where two members of each of the 50 clubs in Catalonia who registered took part in a discussion about how to move things forward in the process of regulating their activities, and how to stand up to the authorities in Catalonia, as well as the Anti-Drugs Prosecutor’s Office in Spain’s central government, which is contrary to the collective cultivation by the clubs.

The Transnational Institute (TNI) was one of the institutions that attended the Forum, which had the following objectives:

1. Provide a space for all the cannabis associations and clubs in Catalonia to meet and discuss the similarities and differences between the groups, as well as their needs and concerns in relation to their activities.

2. Agree a basic document setting out the sector’s demands for a new model of legal regulation of its activities.

3. Define a plan and a way of working to draw up a shared and agreed proposal for legal regulations to govern the activities of Catalonia’s cannabis associations and clubs.

The Forum managed to raise public awareness about the sector. Within the sector itself, the heated debate enabled it to adopt a stance with regard to regulatory models and operating paradigms. The results of this joint reflection were set out in the Bellaterra Declaration. As the months have gone by, the seeds planted there have begun to sprout and things are no longer the same as they were before. Despite this, the dynamism of the CSC has led to the exponential emergence of new challenges.

The future of the clubs and the proposals 

The debate about the future of the clubs and the regulatory proposals is important not just for the future of the clubs in Spain but also on the international scene. In several European countries and also some in Latin America, especially Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Chile, people are looking at the Spanish model as a possible template for regulating the cannabis market in their own countries.

By way of a conclusion to these reflections, we would like to sound a warning about the debate and the current situation of the clubs/associations. We believe that it is obviously necessary to regularize the activities of these groups so that they can operate with the guarantee that they will not be persecuted by the police or the criminal justice system as long as they do not break the law. But in focusing the debate on the regularization of the clubs/associations, we should not allow our attention to be distracted from the problems faced on a day-to-day basis by individual cannabis users and growers, whether or not they belong to a club/association, as they are still exposed to legal insecurity and ambiguity in policing as well.

It would be paradoxical, to say the least, if this security was guaranteed to the clubs and their members but not to the rest of cannabis users. The fight for the activities of the cannabis groups to be regularized should not take priority over the fight for legal and police protection for individual cannabis growers and users. The defence of freedoms in the area of drugs in general, and cannabis in particular, should always seek to guarantee the rights of individuals as the priority, before defending the rights of any group.

The Sustainable Drug Policies Commission is a meeting and discussion platform that emerged from the 15M movement in Barcelona’s Plaça Catalunya. Our thinking focuses on alternatives to current drug policies and proposals for concrete actions to put them in practice. Our unwavering objective is to bring about a world that is more peaceful and more respectful of the environment, where all human rights and freedoms are guaranteed; a world in which public policies focus on education and health, not on war and crime.

More information:

Cannabis social clubs in Spain: A normalizing alternative underway, Martín Barriuso Alonso, Series on Legislative Reform of Drug Policies Nr. 9, January 2011

Cannabis reaches parliament: The debate on regulating Cannabis Social Clubs in the Basque country, Martín Barriuso Alonso, June 26, 2012.

Between collective organisation and commercialisation: The Cannabis Social Clubs at the cross-roads, Martín Barriuso Alonso, August 9, 2012

Portugal progresses toward integrated cannabis regulation: Proposed legislation would authorise growing for personal use and the creation of Cannabis Social Clubs, Martin Barriuso Alonso, October 25, 2012

Rasquera, què fem amb la marihuana?, TV3 30 minuts (documental en catalán), November 11, 2012

How does a Cannabis Social Club work? A visit to Trekt Uw Plant in Antwerp, Balázs Mészáros & Lena Oddball (HCLU), February 18, 2013

For the latest news on the cannabis clubs, click here.