Almost every city in the world has cafes—and in 2021, many American cities have legal cannabis—but nowhere else in the world can you find anything resembling the roughly 225 cannabis social clubs in Barcelona.
Plentiful, relatively simple to find, welcoming to tourists and (mostly) tolerated by authorities, Barcelona’s cannabis “asociaciones” make the Catalonian capital possibly the best “420 friendly” tourist destination in the world. Some would even argue they are better than Amsterdam’s coffeeshop scene, and certainly more welcoming than the U.S., where social consumption lounges are rare.
And now that’s all at risk of going away. As El Pais reported, in late July, the Catalan High Court ruled that Barcelona’s cannabis clubs can no longer “promote the consumption, sale or cultivation” of cannabis. The court also threw out regulations passed by local lawmakers in Barcelona—meaning, technically speaking, police could come and shut all 225 of them down tomorrow, as a stern letter sent recently to all 225 clubs from the Barcelona City Council warned.
Inspectors from city government will sometime soon visit all of the city’s asociaciones, “starting with the ones with the most negative impact and which are geared towards tourists and massive sales, with shutdown orders possible to follow investigations.
A strike against cannabis tourism echoes a limited crackdown against certain foreign-friendly cannabis cafes in Holland—who risk penalties if they admit foreigners without proof of local residence. But in Barcelona, even locals-only clubs are in jeopardy. “The majority of associations assume that sooner or later they will be forced to close down,” as Eric Asensio, a spokesman for the Federation of Catalan Cannabis Associations told the Guardian.
That hasn’t happened yet. Inspections have yet to begin, and while fines and imprisonment are on the table for any Barcelona associations who defy authorities,US-style police raids seem unlikely in Spain, where the drug war has taken a much softer tone—and particularly in Barcelona, long a bastion for progressive politics, where the mayor is a radical housing activist. (But American readers should remember: in Spain, law enforcement follow national rules rather than a patchwork of local rules.)
But as lawmakers and lawyers and advocates for associations like CatFac argue the meaning of the court’s ruling, Barcelona’s cannabis clubs are living in a state of anxiety and uncertainty.
Club owners and staffers interviewed for this article say the future is uncertain—but the trend seems to point towards a corporate takeover of Barcelona’s freewheeling cannabis community.
“It’s complicated, but for now nothing is happening,” said Nico , one of the co-owners of El Club Verde in the city’s El Raval neighborhood, not far from the city’s medieval Gothic Quarter, who declined to give his last name.
Nothing, he added, except for stress and uncertainty.
Back to illegality
In a story that will sound familiar to Californians, for years, Barcelona’s cannabis clubs existed in a sort of armistice zone. They weren’t legal, but as long as nobody was selling or smoking cannabis outside, and as long as clubs didn’t create much of a smell, or allow anyone strolling past to see what was inside—and as long as they didn’t advertise—everything was okay. Both police and citizens liked the fact that the associations reduced street dealing and consumption.
Though the initial idea was that clubs could be gathering places where people could smoke their own stash, associations quickly started selling cannabis to anyone who paid a membership fee. It’s not entirely clear if this cannabis is their own or if cultivation is controlled by organized crime.
Some club owners and observers will privately admit that other clubs are fronts for transnational criminal organizations—and indeed, some large clubs were classified as criminal enterprises and forced to close in 2014 before both the state of Catalonia and the city of Barcelona passed rules regulating the associations.
In a test case of unintended consequences, Mst clubs felt safe until one association contested the city’s rules around air filtration systems. The complaint reached the Catalan high court, which ruled the city was not free to make laws that violated regional drug statutes, and if Barcelona wanted cannabis clubs, they would have to wait until national lawmakers in Madrid legalized the drug nationally.
Waiting on Madrid
Since the court ruling, the City Council has suggested that cannabis clubs will be able to continue, but as gathering spaces only—no sales. CatFac is arguing that sales are still allowed, and has launched an effort to try to organize the associations in an effort to stay open and to pass friendly laws in Madrid.
In an interview, Patricia Amiguet, the president of CatFac, said she hopes this crisis can become a chance at something better—maybe even legalization. “We’re hoping it can be an opportunity to work together and get regulations in Catalonia,” she said.
In the meantime, there’s the familiar feeling of watching the door and wondering if the next knock is trouble. Will police arrive tomorrow, will the clubs survive until the next Spannabis? Is this it? Nobody can say.
“To be honest, nobody really knows what will happen, when, or how,” said Kenzi Riboulet-Zemouli, a drug policy researcher based in Barcelona. “Even authorities and the judiciary would be unable to tell you what will happen. There are many layers of government/laws/regulations involved and the enforcement of what has changed will be very complex.”
For now, he added, “we are back at the pre-2017 status when there was no [Barcelona] City Hall regulation and no Catalan regulation.”