Cannabis clubs in Spain are prising open their doors as the country enters the second phase of lockdown de-escalation. But campaigners say socio-economic impacts of the shutdown prove cannabis is an accepted norm of mainstream Spanish society, and private weed clubs should be allowed to dispense like pharmacies if illicit market forces are to be defeated once and for all.
Spain’s first cannabis club opened in 2001, providing a legal loophole for consumption in private spaces, which, according to campaigners, has helped reduce illicit market sales.
But the impact of lockdown in Spain has seen medicinal and recreational tokers across the land tear out their hair as they scrambled to source supplies after cannabis clubs were ordered to shut down in response to the coronavirus epidemic.
Patricia Amiguet, president of the Catalan Federation of Cannabis Associations (Cat-FAC), told High Times that lockdown meant an estimated 300,000 cannabis club members were resorting to illicit market sources for supplies.
This sudden overnight dependency by such an influx of cannabis consumers has unraveled “almost two decades of work that cannabis clubs have done to help eliminate [illicit] market sales,” says Max di Roma, founder of Cannabis Barcelona, a “Wikipedia-like site” offering consulting services to some 70 clubs across the city.
Di Roma added that during this time, the cost of cannabis in an illicit market more risk-laden than ever has also soared to more than triple the price, rising from €6 to €25 a gram.
According to Amiguet, there are estimated 1,200 cannabis clubs in Spain—a movement worth over half a billion euros.
But she said it is difficult to ascertain the exact number of clubs because of the fluctuating rates at which some illicit market forces open and close venues, which they use as fronts for their activities.
She said this was why urgent laws to protect clubs from cartels were a long time pending, adding that in the meantime, “organized mafias have for sure benefitted from the lockdown situation, and it shows how little governments care about users.”
But now, as Spain begins to re-open shops, bars and restaurants, cannabis clubs too are opening their doors. Albeit, more tentatively than their commercial counterparts, namely because there’s no official green light to confirm whether or not they should open—or any guidance on how to go about it if they do in a climate of COVID-19.
Cármate Asociación, a ‘cannabis dispensary’ in Murcia’s port city of Cartagena has opted to follow detailed guidance published by ConFac—Spain’s largest federation of cannabis clubs—which advised on factors such as respecting the law, waste management, hygiene, cross contamination, and consumption.
Owners Bartolomé de Haro Cabanas and David Moreno Aguera swung open the doors to the venue in 2013. Cabanas told High Times: “There used to be dealers on every corner, it was a very different place before cannabis clubs began to arrive in the area.”
The 56-year old psychosocial therapist met Aguera, 44, an agricultural engineer, while they both worked to help people living with AIDS and drug addiction.
He added that “One of our risk prevention methods is to sell at the same price as the [illicit] market so people are not tempted by cheaper, more dangerous options.”
“Cannabis clubs are also safer quality controlled environments where we can ensure therapeutic users receive the right dose.”
He said de-escalation of lockdown has come as a welcome “relief” for therapeutic users “but still, we did what we could to help them during that difficult time.”
Quarantine and Cannabis In Spain
Discreet deliveries do not always work out though. One 27-year old disguised as an Amazon driver was slapped with a four year prison sentence and €5k fine after getting caught delivering cannabis to an address in the coastal town of Vigo.
Ultimately though, says Amiguet, lockdown has been a litmus test to “prove prohibition does not work and COVID is evidence to show it’s time to legalise cannabis.”
A spokesperson for Spain’s Interior Ministry told High Times it was “too early” to establish whether lockdown has triggered a spike in drug trafficking crimes.
But figures published by the government department reveal drug trafficking crimes during the first quarter of 2020 increased by 1.6 percent compared to the same period in 2019.
Constanza Sánchez Avilés, director of law, policy and human rights at the Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS) said: “It is very likely that illegal agents expanded their capacity of supply and have greater control over prices.”
Daniel Montolio, professor of economics at the University of Barcelona, and a researcher at the Barcelona Institute of Economics, also said it was likely that club closures equated to “a flourishing [illicit] market” because of increased dependency and the spike in prices triggered by risks of distributing in lockdown.
ConFac claims 10,000 jobs in the cannabis club movement were affected by lockdown with salaries slashed or people fired. But according to di Roma, recovery was going to be “challenging” because of piling rents and costs due to absence of government support.
He said: “We’re consulting lawyers everyday on behalf of clubs concerned about employee welfare. There have simply been no legal guidelines on how they should operate during this time of crisis. Not during lockdown—and not now as we de-escalate from it.”
Some 3,000 cannabis consumers are members of Barcelona’s downtown venue, Doctor of Cannabis. Owner Gabriele Tano, 48, has just reopened. He allows a maximum of seven people into the venue for limited periods of time.
“Most of our members use cannabis for therapeutic reasons so lockdown was a very worrying time. Of course we are relieved to re-open and we have adopted all the rules from ConFac, so we are fully equipped with masks, gels, sanitation, awareness, everything.”
But even as clubs reopen and tokers breathe a collective sigh of relief, campaigners are concerned a second wave of coronavirus and another possible lockdown could be on the cards.
Di Roma said the situation is intensifying the fight to “regulate cannabis,” which would allow weed clubs to remain open as “essential services” and dispense cannabis in pretty much the same way as pharmacies so people can take it home to consume.
Covid-19, he said, has increased the urgency for taking steps towards cannabis legalisation.
Support for self-cultivation of cannabis has already been expressed by Podemos, the far left arm of Spain’s socialist coalition government. The party’s leader Pablo Iglesias has been vocal about the benefits of legalization on reducing drug trafficking, boosting the economy, and treating illness.
The party has also been vocal about its support for cannabis self-cultivation to promote “social wealth.”
But such a move would require the Spanish state to rubber stamp licenses to plant, produce, and sell cannabis.
Spain’s Cannabis Observatory for the Consumption and Cultivation of Cannabis (OECCC) has proposed a transparent licensing system for cultivating medicinal cannabis.
It claims to be the only Spanish entity to study the alleged impact made by lack of transparency in cannabis licensing.
Spokesperson Hugo Madera told High Times that a license to cultivate should be based on “people not companies” thus preventing the implementation of a model that “decreases accessibility and increases prices.”
In April, drug policy group Podemos Cannábico submitted a parliamentary proposal for cannabis clubs to be deemed “essential services.” Campaigners from the group say a rapid solution to serve the needs of the current COVID climate is imminent.
The group’s spokesperson Lourdes Ciria told High Times: “If coronavirus does not discriminate, neither does cancer, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s, Multiple sclerosis, or chronic pain.
“We’ve already witnessed the pressure felt by vulnerable people over the last couple of months, so we urgently need regulation that allows transparent licensing to cultivate and that allows cannabis clubs to dispense.”
Amiguet said it’s just a matter of time before cannabis for medicinal use is made available. “Getting the government to listen is not the difficult part. The challenge is finding the courage to take the step towards legalisation.”
She added: “Alba Verges, Catalonia’s Minister of Health showed this when she gave the green light to cannabis clubs. This is the first left-wing government in the history of Spanish democracy. So if the cannabis movement has the chance to promote legalization, then there is no better time than now.”