Barcelona’s Cannabis Clubs in Limbo After Abrupt Court Ruling

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Part of Barcelona’s charming appeal is its concentration of hundreds of cannabis clubs—known locally as asociaciónes—but that could come crashing to an end in the city’s latest setback. The Supreme Court dealt another blow to the legal loophole that allowed around 200 local clubs to continue operation.

They are defined officially as private members’ clubs, but the associations generally rely on luring tourists, with a membership fee of around €10 ($11.83)—and it usually goes towards the first purchase, anyways.

In 2014, the Public Health Agency of the Generalitat de Catalunya proposed tight new measures to regulate the clubs. The Generalitat is the regional government of Catalonia—having broad powers under Spain’s decentralized system, although it cannot override Spanish national law. And Spanish law allows private cannabis use.

The cannabis clubs reached a setback in 2017, when the Supreme Court overruled the local Catalan law. That law once maintained that “private consumption of cannabis by adults… is part of the exercise of the fundamental right to free personal development and freedom of conscience.”

The clubs continued to operate, however, under a city bylaw that regulated the sale of cannabis. But that too has been overruled by judges, taking the authority away from city officials.

“The majority of associations assume that sooner or later they will be forced to close down,” Eric Asensio, spokesman for the Federation of Catalan Cannabis Associations told The Guardian. “Once again, the judiciary is attacking the associations without taking into account the reality of Barcelona, a city that has co-existed with these entities for more than 30 years.”

The city, which supports the associations’ grey-area status, has clarified to them that the latest ruling prohibits “the sale, consumption or promotion” of cannabis—representing a severe blow to the future of the clubs as they know it. City officials said it would soon be inspecting the clubs, “starting with the ones with the most negative impact and which are geared towards tourists and massive sales.”

Asensio added that if the city kept the regulations in place, crime would actually be reduced because it would thwart gangs and mafia members from infiltrating the system. It’s unclear whether the latest ruling will stand and if the clubs have any arsenal left to defend their industry.

Are Mafia and Gang Grow Operations in Cannabis Clubs to Blame?

Vice News ran a feature on the surge of illegal activity in Barcelona, Europe’s “Cannabis Capital.” Journalists report that when tourism crashed, mafia and gang members quickly seized control of cannabis trade, often working in unison with some of the clubs.

The associations first operated as private clubs where members could buy and smoke cannabis on the premises. But recently, many have departed from that model to instead become outlets for the massive quantities of cannabis grown in Catalonia—under the control of eastern European and other mafia organizations.

Over the past year police have broken up 34 criminal organizations that have sprung up that are connected to cannabis, and destroyed 319 plantations. Spain is remarkably tolerant of cannabis crimes and criminals rarely stay in jail more than two years for any type of cannabis-related crimes.

With the collapse of tourism in Barcelona due to COVID-19, the cannabis business is one of very few thriving in Catalonia, but beyond the low lights and chilled vibe of the associations, darker forces are in play. An internal report by the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan police, claims “Catalonia is the epicentre of Europe’s illegal marijuana market” and has become a net exporter of cannabis to other European countries.

Also filling the void, a Chinese gang known as “Bang of Fujian” was using the clubs in Barcelona and other Spanish cities to sell cannabis grown illegally. Europol swarmed 29 warehouses in Barcelona, effectively shutting down the gang’s operations.

The once-innocent tourism cannabis club industry in Barcelona could get worse, if the Supreme Court continues to shut down city regulations that make the city safer.