Over the years, the cannabis landscape in Spain, and in particular, Barcelona, has been far from straightforward. Technically cannabis remains illegal in Spain, yet an abundance of cannabis social clubs means that the main city of the Catalonia region has also long been considered the cannabis capital of the country. Throughout Barcelona, as well as other Spanish cities, consumers (both local and tourists) have been able to access cannabis by becoming members of cannabis social clubs; however, according to recent reports, this could all be about to change.
Barcelona’s City Council is reportedly exploring ways to legally close cannabis social clubs in the city as members state: “It is a model that we do not want in our city.” But this isn’t the first time such proposals have made headlines, prompting the question: What is really going on with cannabis in Barcelona?
For years, the authorities in Barcelona have adopted a tolerance policy towards cannabis social clubs in the city. The model has even inspired proposed legislative changes in other countries in recent years, including Germany and the Czech Republic. Could this all be about to change?
Barcelona’s history of cannabis social clubs
Cannabis social clubs are essentially non-commercial organisations that allow collective funding of cannabis cultivation and distribution among members. Catalonia has remained the undisputed centre of cannabis social clubs, with 70% of the country’s clubs located in the region (the majority of which are in Barcelona). However, despite the popularity of these communal spaces, the model has come under some criticism in the past, largely due to their pivoting towards tourist markets, and a growing association with criminal organisations.
Barcelona’s authorities have been seeking the closure of the clubs since 2014, but this was largely prevented under the “La Rosa Verda” (The Green Rose) regulation which regulated the cannabis social clubs which helped to establish Barcelona as Spain’s cannabis capital. In 2021, however, Spain’s supreme court closed this legal loophole leading to fears that the city’s 200 cannabis clubs could face closure.
Nonetheless, for a huge number of local residents and tourists alike, many of Barcelona’s cannabis social clubs have become a safe space for the consumption of cannabis. So, could this really be about to change?
The latest development in Barcelona
The latest move, spearheaded by Barcelona’s City Council and the city’s municipal police force, is a renewed inspection campaign that will reportedly target at least 20 cannabis social clubs. While this isn’t the first time the authorities have undertaken such inspections, accompanying statements by the City Council indicate that it has changed its political stance on the clubs.
The departure from a policy of tolerance was highlighted in the last plenary session of 2023 (held on December 22), during which the third deputy mayor and security councillor, Albert Batlle, stated the council’s intention to “put an end [to cannabis social clubs],” explaining that the policy would need to be implemented “with legal certainty, with rigor, and without flaws caused by haste.”
This isn’t the first time Barcelona’s approach to cannabis has been under threat. When the 2021 supreme court ruling challenged the legal grey area in which the clubs have been able to operate, Eric Asensio, spokesman for the Federation of Catalan Cannabis Associations said “The majority of associations assume that sooner or later they will be forced to close down,” but mass closures never came. However, in interviews with local media, some cannabis club owners in Barcelona have revealed that the latest wave of inspections have differed from previous ones, with a focus being placed on determining whether cannabis use is simply permitted, or encouraged, in the spaces. While it remains to be seen whether this latest political statement by Barcelona’s authorities could really mean the end for the region’s cannabis clubs, the latest developments certainly indicate an appetite to depart from the tolerance for which the city has become known globally.
Cannabis social clubs across Spain
While Barcelona takes the crown when it comes to the sheer number of cannabis social clubs, similar venues are believed to cater to over 4 million and attract estimated annual tourism figures of between 6.6 and 12.4 million consumers. The venues exist in a grey area of Spain’s legislation, which states the trade and commercialisation of cannabis is strictly illegal. However, despite their precarious legality, cannabis social clubs have been a common sight in Spain for decades and have – for better or worse – helped the country to become known as one of the cannabis hotspots of Europe.
This latest development may sound like the end of a decades-long progressive approach to cannabis consumption in Europe, but with a growing number of countries exploring the potential of cannabis social clubs – and even the complete legalisation of recreational cannabis – we may well see another chance of heart from Barcelona’s City Council in the years to come.