Not quite Amsterdam: cannabis clubs popular, but exist in legal gray area

Story by Marco White

BARCELONA–Barcelona is not the new Amsterdam, though some tourists might wonder when they walk down the bustling and picturesque La Rambla boulevard that’s filled with shops and bars and, as it turns out, a few “cannabis cafes.”

Almost any day in the city, among the throngs of people, there are cannabis foot soldiers in the crowd. Usually dressed in something with a marijuana leaf on it, they call “coffee shop” or “cannabis club” to people passing by. Interest piqued, the tourist will be led to one of the city’s 400 cannabis clubs where, for a small fee to the street scout, he or she can enter the club with membership status.

Members of Sticky Green, a cannabis club in Barcelona, make marijuana extract by grinding the buds. Handout by Sticky Green

Members of Sticky Green, a cannabis club, make marijuana extract by grinding the plants’  buds.
Photo courtesy of Sticky Green

Over the past several years, cannabis clubs have been emerging in this Mediterranean tourist city. With nearly 400 establishments in business now, Barcelona is developing a reputation as a sort of rival to Amsterdam, where tourists and residents can buy cannabis in various forms in numerous cafes and shops around the city. The presence of cannabis clubs in Barcelona has exploded considering that in 2011 the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that there were only 40 clubs here. Articles on travel websites and blogs comparing Barcelona’s cannabis clubs to Amsterdam’s coffee shops have contributed to a steady increase in foreign interest.

“We already have a cannabis culture in Spain where many people self medicate with cannabis without any sort of issues,” said Jaume Xaus, the communications director for CatFac, an organization that represents 30 clubs in Barcelona. He said it’s “completely normal” that use of the drug would evolve to also include the club atmosphere that so many visitors clearly crave.

Though some cannabis clubs welcome foreigners, others are highly opposed to tourists trying to gain access. Barcelona is currently the fourth most popular destination in Europe, though it is unclear whether the cannabis clubs in the city have had a significant impact on that. Yet tourists are gaining access in some measure: Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but experts put the club membership figures across the city at 160,000, accounting for about $5.5 million in monthly sales as of last year, according to the Federation of Self-Regulated Cannabis in Catalonia. However, it’s not an all-out boon for owners. The clubs are vulnerable to government shut downs considering Spain still treats cannabis as an illegal substance in some contexts.

According to Marco Esteban, a criminal attorney from Barcelona, the confusion about the legality of the clubs stems from the fact that, “On one side, the criminal code says that marijuana is illegal and on the other side, government administrative offices say that the clubs can exist and in between there is a void of legislation.” Esteban emphasized that the sale of marijuana is still a crime and that the government does not endorse the cannabis cafes.

Spain is party to the United Nations’ Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which establishes Spain’s responsibility to “adopt such measures as may be necessary to prevent the misuse of, and illicit traffic in, the leaves of the cannabis plant.” Though the production and traffic of cannabis is illegal in Spain, citizens are able to cultivate and consume the drug in the privacy of their home. The use of cannabis in a private residences is decriminalized. However, if a private citizen attempted to sell cannabis under any circumstances the government would consider it a criminal offense.

In January 2015, the Catalonian Department of Health issued some basic guidelines for the clubs. Under those, membership is limited to people 18 years or older who are either Spanish residents or nonresidents who are sponsored by a current member. Other measures include limiting the clubs to eight hours of operation, requiring them to close at 10 p.m. from Sunday to Thursday and midnight on Friday and Saturday and restricting members to only register at one club. All of these measures make it difficult for tourists passing through to participate in the culture. Yet they often still find a way.

The government’s policy toward the cannabis clubs has frustrated some club owners. “They show the people that they don’t want cannabis clubs but they don’t do anything about it. They give the clubs provisional licenses but don’t allow them to grow the product,” said a local club owner who would only identify himself as Gerard. He explained that as an owner he struggles with the legal gray area within which he has to operate. For example, because the sale of cannabis for profit is illegal, his and all clubs must be set up as non-profit organizations. The amount of cannabis each club can grow is based on the number of members it has, with about 50 grams allotted to each member per month. That’s about 1.76 ounces.

Located in Barcelona’s old town on Carrer de Sant Pere Mes Alt, Gerard’s club Sticky Green is a comfortable space. There are couches and a pool table in the lounge area, a coffee machine, full bar and a case full of cannabis infused pastries and candies. There is also a small structure separated from the bar where members can purchase the actual cannabis from around 30 small glass containers. The city’s cannabis clubs vary greatly in appearance, with some resembling luxurious cocktail bars and others resembling basements.

Club owners like Gerard remain cautious of the government and its evolving stance on cannabis clubs. According to Gerard, last year the government shut down a handful of clubs for infractions related to selling to non-member tourists and improper ventilation. For members, the influx of tourists coming to Barcelona to consume cannabis is also a source of worry.

The entrance to Sticky Green, a cannabis lounge located in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter.
Photo by Joe Thomas

Outside the Sticky Green is James Silverman, a tourist from Manchester, England. “It seems like some places get really nervous about tourists, but the one we’ve been to has been inviting,” he said.

Dani Garcia, a Barcelona sommelier, or wine expert, has been a member of a local cannabis club for more than four years. He began using cannabis to treat his migraines after a recommendation from his doctor. Garcia smokes cannabis for both medical and recreational purposes.

Garcia’s biggest concern over the growth of these clubs is the possibility of drug tourism. “I don’t want tourists here looking to smoke cannabis. If there are a lot of people that come to Barcelona to do that, we will be kicked out of these clubs,” he said.

Xaus, of CatFac, stated that the largest problem facing the clubs is that they must find a way to produce and transport enough cannabis for their members without becoming criminals in the eyes of the government. He suspects some clubs must illicitly purchase cannabis on the black market or set up unlawful operations to grow the plant themselves to keep up with demand.

With Spain’s local government elections having just passed, CatFac is eagerly awaiting to see whether the government’s position on cannabis will change at all. The deputy director of drug dependency from the Catalonian Department of Health, Xavier Majó, refused to make an official comment on the government’s position toward the cannabis clubs. Majó did say that the laws related to the cannabis clubs in Barcelona were in need of clarification but refused to elaborate.

Though Garcia would hate to see the government exert more authority over the cannabis clubs in Barcelona, he agrees with Majó that the laws need to be more transparent. “I think it would be nice to have some clear regulations. The more regulations there are, the freer I am to use it, and to have it on my own. I’m not a drug dealer,” he said. “I’m just a consumer. I don’t want to be treated like a criminal.”

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