A step back in Spanish drug policies

A de facto criminalisation of cannabis use?
Inés Giménez, communication officer of IDPC
Thursday, December 19, 2013

In the past few weeks, the attention of the international drug policy community has been focused on the cannabis regulation bill in Uruguay. The great significance of this momentum for the drug policy reform has been supported by various civil society organisations and public opinion leaders from all around the world. This contrasts with the steps back undertaken in Spain, where a new bill – the paradoxically so-called citizen security law – was approved last 29th November by the Council of Ministers.

This worrying bill proposes an increase in the administrative fines imposed for the possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use up to 30,000 euros. This decision is part of a package of measures that also severely restricts the rights to strike, to demonstrate and of freedom of expression. According to the right hand Popular Party (Partido Popular), that has absolute majority in the Parliament -- and therefore has no obligation to negotiate the bill with other political parties -- the aim of the bill is to maintain “public order”. The tone is so harsh that the Ministry of Interior, Jorge Fernández Diaz, responded to the critics of the European Commission accusing them of not having read the integrity of the law.

The bill might be approved in the next weeks by the Spanish Parliament. In case this bill pass, cannabis possession will continue not to be a criminal offence, but in practice the huge fines associated with it could easily lead to de facto criminalisation.

This could cause not only a back on civil and drug users rights, but it also contradicts the ongoing processes and debates around the legal regulation of cannabis that are taking place in the Basque and Catalonian Parliament. As such, this decision also implies territorial controversies.

In this context, one of the cases that have shocked international public opinion is the prosecution by the Spanish justice of the cannabis social club Pannagh in the Basque Country. Two years after the precautionary closure of the cannabis consumers association Pannagh, the anti-drug prosecutor requested prison sentences totalling 22 years and fines of nearly 2.5 million euros for five members of the association.

The decision made by the Prosecutor contradicts the judgement made by the Spanish Supreme Court in October 2001 and July 2003 that established “that possession of cannabis, including large quantities, is not a crime if there is no clear intention of trafficking”. The decision also places other Spanish cannabis clubs in a juridical uncertainty, overshadowing the huge drug policy progress made previously in the country.

The approach adopted by Pannagh is paradigmatic. It is the oldest and largest cannabis club in Spain, including around 700 cannabis users. Martín Barriuso Alonso, President of the Federation of Cannabis Associations (FAC), defines them in a TNI briefing as “non- commercial organisations of users who get together to cultivate and distribute enough cannabis to meet their personal needs, without having to turn to the black market”. According to the latest Transform publication, How to regulate cannabis: A practical guide, these clubs allow daily personal allowances of, on average, 3 grams per person.

This approach has even been replicated in Uruguay: cannabis clubs are one of the four ways in which cannabis can now be produced, traded, sold and used, as these clubs have been proven to be an effective model to reduce access to the black market and to provide better quality products, reducing the risks associated with consumption.

What, then, can be behind the Spanish government’s decision? Far from being spontaneous, the Prosecutor’s decision follows a conservative logic that does not only ignore the jurisprudence, but also the achievements made by decriminalisation models, the involvement of civil society in governance and community well-being, the debates that are taking place in regional parliaments and the consideration of therapeutic cannabis.

In August 2013, the State Prosecution published an instruction on issues related to associations promoting the growing of cannabis. This instruction echoes the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and a set of national laws dating from 1967 that consider illicit cannabis cultivation “without administrative permission”. Although the instruction recognises that the jurisprudence allows for the “shared consumption of drugs”, it promotes a criminal justice approach on drug use and considers cannabis production as a “public health offence”.

Spanish civil society has broadly contested the imposition of the “Citizen security law” (an Avaaz petition, for instance, has collected more than 250,000 signatures). A series of actions were undertaken by several civil society groups to raise awareness on the worrying implications of harsh drug laws and how they affect our human rights, especially in a context in which the UN drug conventions, the war on drugs and the prohibitionist models are being contested at different levels with the adoption of a broad range of new initiatives.