The sale and importation of any quantity of cannabis in Spain is a criminal offence, punishable by law. Purchasing, possessing and consuming cannabis in a public place in Spain constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and confiscation of the product. Cannabis plants located somewhere within public view also constitute a fineable administrative offence. There is however a caveat that has allowed many a Spaniard to continue to consume their herb of choice without committing a criminal offence. The caveat is in the form of what are locally referred to as Cannabis Social Clubs. Cannabis social clubs, or CSCs, are private, non-profit organizations in which cannabis is collectively grown and distributed at a cost to registered members. The first one was established in 2001. They operate on a no-profit model, seeking only to provide a more public-health-conscious platform for the consumption of cannabis. Although the legal status of CSCs has not yet been set in stone, the consumption of cannabis within them in not penalized by the authorities. A study conducted by a regional Spanish government to determine the viability of cannabis social clubs and the therapeutic consumption of cannabis recommended that such clubs be legal as long as they distribute only to a restricted list of legal adults, provide only the amount of cannabis necessary for immediate consumption, and not earn a profit. Although the regional government never officially implemented the recommendations, they have become the commandments by which CSCs now operate.
There are reported a number of historical cases where members of CSCs, operating within premises, were arrested, fined and detained, but who were later acquitted at trial and the police ordered to return all seized products. Spain has long tried to cultivate a tolerant attitude towards substance consumption, and particularly cannabis, so this treatment of CSCs and their members comes as no huge surprise. In order to ensure compliance with established laws and precedents and keep the authorities looking the other way, CSCs strive to uphold the following principles;
- Official registration in a regional registry of associations, which subjects the members to background checks ensuring legitimacy, transparency and accountability.
- Commitment to reducing the risks and harms associated with the supply and consumption of cannabis, which is done primarily by encouraging and overseeing responsible consumption.
- Restriction of premises to the general public. Access is granted only through registered membership which is reserved only for qualified individuals. Qualification may be through reference by an existing member who vouches for character, or sometimes a qualified doctor’s note in the case of an individual seeking membership for medical consumption.
- Limitation of the quantities of cannabis consumed on premises, which is achieved through daily personal allowances for each member (on average 3 grams). This is done to reduce the likelihood of the cannabis leaking into the illicit trade market. It is also a great step towards promoting responsible consumption.
- Distribution for immediate consumption. The CSCs typically grow small quantities of cannabis, usually on site, which is then consumed in premises in order to encourage responsible use and minimize the risk of members sneaking some away to resell in the illegal market.
- Maintenance of a strictly non-profit business model, which allows them to repurpose their services towards promoting consumer health and wellbeing. The revenue generated from members is funneled back into operations and government tax.
The growth of the CSC model in Spain illustrates that legalizing the consumption of cannabis does not have to go hand in hand with commercialization and its inherent vices. On the contrary, it has proved to be a better functioning alternative to the large scale retail of cannabis. There exist over 400 CSCs in Spain today, many of which are located in the metropolitan Barcelona and Catalonia. This popularity is directly related to the benefits that a non-commercial approach to the consumption of cannabis offers. Whereas a commercial market model initiates production and supply with the singular aim of maximizing profit (usually by encouraging extravagant consumption), the CSC model’s goal is consumer wellbeing. Their noble operation and clandestine nature also means that they attract very little attention from authorities and regulatory institutions, often being treated as part of decriminalization policies.
While the CSC model may be functioning smoothly now, it is not farfetched to predict that some of the clubs may soon veer off the ethical non-profit path that has been laid for them. It is reported that some CSCs have upwards of a thousand registered members and numbers are rapidly growing. The temptation to shift to a money-making operation is inevitable with numbers like that. Following such concerns, some CSCs have called for greater governmental oversight to safeguard against over-commercialization. These calls have received positive response from some local governments who have voted to officially license and regulate CSCs, with said regulation drawing inspiration from the very principles that the clubs have already been operating on.
The CSCs model has also found a home outside of Spain in countries such as Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Belgium, proving that it is entirely possible to restrict the availability and promotion of cannabis while at the same time making its legally available to adult users.