Barcelona Cannabis Clubs Dealt Fresh Blow by Spanish Supreme Court

Barcelona’s fight over the legality of cannabis clubs has gone into overtime with the federal court dealing a blow to a 30-year-old industry that refuses to pack it in
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Barcelona is still fighting to try and keep their legacy cannabis clubs open, despite a recent blow from the Supreme court. 

The battle over recreational cannabis is entering a new phase in Spain right now. Last week, the Supreme Court closed the loophole in federal law created by municipal officials in Barcelona, which allows the cannabis clubs a legal space in which to operate.

Namely, the judges ruled that city officials, who have supported the clubs so far, are not competent to legislate on such matters. Since most cannabis clubs in Spain are in Barcelona, this decision is a gauntlet thrown, and from a high level, on the entire discussion.

If this happened in the United States, it would essentially be like the city of Denver facing down the federal government on, say, selling cannabis without the protection of a state vote to change the constitution and a Cole memo, albeit with a few less SWAT teams. 

The fact is that Catalonia, the Spanish state in which Barcelona is located, has a longstanding separatist tendency, which is why the city has long given a pass to the existence of the clubs.

But it is not just city officials who have come out in support of the clubs. The police also agree with the idea of having clubs in the first place—in part because it cuts down on crime.

This is familiar territory, in other words, to anyone used to the dichotomies and frequent setbacks of cannabis reform. What makes it different is why the Spanish judiciary, if not legislature, seems so determined to take a hard line in an environment where Holland (for starters) seems to be finally going with the flow.

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Barcelona: A Split Between Federal and State Authorities

Some of the issues at stake are familiar to those of American extraction who had a ringside seat to similar issues about seven years ago. In Spain, the war on the clubs at a federal level began in 2017 (also the year that Germany changed its medical cannabis law), when the Supreme Court overturned a Catalan state law allowing the private consumption of cannabis as the exercise of the fundamental right to free personal development.

The Catalonians are not alone in Spain in terms of their support of cannabis consumption in the club model, which the Spanish have pioneered as much as the Dutch have culturally impacted the debate with cafes. Indeed, in Basque country, there is also organizing afoot to make sure that clubs can stay open.

Regardless of how popular the idea is within the populace, and even politically at the municipal and state level, the court has ruled against the entire ball of wax at a sovereign level. This is, of course, even more devastating in an environment where, at the regional level, the European Court of Justice also refused cert to Albert Tió, organizer of the club movement in the first place, earlier this year.

Why Is Spain Taking Such a Hard Line?

The legal battle against the clubs at a federal level in Spain comes at a curious time in Europe. Even as the judiciary on an EU level refused to face the reality of recreational reform this spring, events on the ground throughout Europe are moving in a way that is decidedly different than the current events in Spain would otherwise indicate. 

Namely, in Switzerland, vendors are beginning to register their products for the imminent recreational trial, and across the border within the EU, Luxembourg is also shaping up for a swing at the same. These developments, rather than the fact that the Portuguese are rather unsurprisingly sprinting for the recreational finish line too, put the decision of the Spanish court in even greater relief.

Here is one potential reason. The only people allowed to produce certified medical cannabis are authorized to do so by AEMPS, the Spanish Agency of Medicine and Sanitary Products. This means that there are only four licenses available, and all of those are held by powerful people and companies. Further, all the cannabis produced under said licenses must also be for export to another country.

The situation as it stands is not unlike Holland, where there is a similar dichotomy and has been for decades. Unlike Holland, however, which is essentially in the same boat (with only one federally licensed medical producer—the private company Bedrocan) and where officials are finally regulating coffee shops on a national level, the Spanish judiciary at least, seems determined to shut the clubs down.

It is a strange wrinkle indeed in Europe, which is becoming decidedly more pro-cannabis, but one also in which the old laws remain—as well as a highly conservative judiciary and political class determined to wait as long as possible before endorsing cannabis even of the medical kind.

Europe is Following the UN

One thing is clear. Officials and judges at both a federal and regional level are coming to conclusions and rulings based on the international definition of cannabis, which remains, thanks to lack of action at the WHO last year, a Schedule I drug.

As a result, how quickly cannabis reform will come in specific European states and via what means is still broadly unclear. National elections in Germany this fall seem unlikely to move the needle in any significant direction. Lawsuits have only gone so far. The French are moving on CBD reform thanks to lawsuits.

Here is the good news for the Spanish and those on the ground fighting a war that is just only heating up. In Spain, the tide is finally turning on the CBD front too. 

And despite this rather devastating legal setback, the war is still far from over even in Barcelona, although it might get noticeably harder for tourists to join a club. Plus, there is also this to remember. The fallout from COVID, which is also going to affect the pace of reform on this issue, just about everywhere, is still not really being felt.

So, despite the bad news, the battle in Barcelona, if not the Catalan, is far from being over, much less the war. It has just taken a bit of a hiatus as events move forward elsewhere.

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