Over the last five years, Spain has come to rival the Netherlands as Europe's cannabis hub. The country's legal framework around weed, which allows its use and sale within private members clubs, has been fully taken advantage of in the north of the country, particularly in the Catalonia region, where clubs reportedly make an estimated $6 million in sales each month.
These private spliff societies—which, unlike Amsterdam's coffee shops, only allow entry to members, rather than any old sweat-suited stoner straight off an EasyJet flight—have risen in number from around 40 in 2010 to over 700 today, according to smokers' groups. And just as America's "cannabis revolution" was initially centered around California and Colorado before spreading boisterously throughout a number of other states, southern Spain is now also enjoying its very own network of private members cannabis clubs.
I recently visited the pearl of south, Marbella, to get to grips with what a burgeoning "green economy" looks like on the ground, and how a number of British nationals are playing their part.
Arriving in Marbella, it didn't take long to notice the amount of "cannabis expats"—foreigners who'd moved to Spain's sunny south to take advantage of freedoms not afforded to them in their home countries. One British guy who calls himself Paz (which, fittingly, means "peace" in Spanish) is in the process of opening a new association in Marbella, and also founded the online community "Medical Cannabis Spain."
His intentions—as you may have guessed from the name—are centered around improving access for medical users of plant, as opposed to catering to recreational users. There are very few clubs focusing solely on medicinal cannabis products, so Paz hopes to open a location that will operate purely as a medical dispensary, and perhaps one day serve as a model for future clubs with a medical slant.
"I was recently informed that only two of 38 associations in Marbella were actually catering for medical, nonsmoking consumers," Paz told me, alluding to the range of cannabis products that can be ingested without inhaling the smoke of burning plant matter. "Medical patients can still struggle to receive the right medication, but it's a changing culture worldwide, so I do expect this to change."
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While Paz was realistic about the current access available to medical cannabis patients in Spain, he was optimistic about the country becoming the most important player in Europe's cannabis scene. "With the sun, the solar technology, and the cultivation skills, if you were planning things on a resource-based viewpoint, then you would select Spain to supply the whole of Europe," he said.
Considering Marbella's Andalucía region is nearly on the same latitude as the legendary cannabis-filled Emerald Triangle in California, boasting similar conditions and climate for cultivation, he isn't far off.
Away from Paz and his medicinal aspirations, there are plenty of clubs following the established Dutch model of simply providing somewhere for weed smokers to get high. However, locations here vary tremendously compared to those in the Netherlands' capital. While the majority of canal-side coffee shops are characterized by their wooden bars, neon signs, and complete lack of natural light, those in Marbella range from the unpretentious to the upmarket. There's the Honey Bud Club, for example, a pretty standard space with a pool table and a painting of Tupac on the wall; all the way up to Joe's Marbella Smokers Club, which looks a bit like the VIP lounge of a Milton Keynes nightclub.
I had a contact at Verde ("green" in Spanish), a club that—like most others—focuses on the recreational and social aspects of cannabis consumption. The building its housed in is perfectly innocuous, with a small buzzer at the door for guests to announce their arrival. Inside, the place is reminiscent of one of Amsterdam's coffee shops—dark, with a neon back-lit bar—only slightly more homely.
I sat down with Verde's British manager, Levi, and asked him what the Verde association stands for. "Our ethos is that we are a relaxed, very social, English- and Spanish-speaking environment for people interested in cannabis," he said. "Everyone is welcome, whether you are a smoker or nonsmoker; whether you are a heavy consumer or partake occasionally—all providing you meet the requirements to become a member."
So what does the average member look like? "Dubai, London, Paris, the US; pretty much name a country and we will probably have a member from there," Levi answered. "These guys are all from a mad variety of backgrounds—some businessmen, some lawyers, some hippie stoners… all sorts. We even have one member, who I obviously can't give any details about, who's a senior CEO with over 1,000 people employed beneath him. [Our members'] ages range from 21 to 60, including people who use cannabis medically."
Looking around, Verde's patrons certainly didn't look like stereotypical stoners. Mind you, the more time you spend in that world, the more you realize there's really no such thing as a stereotypical cannabis user.
Behind the counter there were a huge number of products that reflected the variety in clientele: organic medicated body creams, infused jellies, caramel slices, cakes, biscuits, and CBD capsules—CBD being the chemical component of cannabis believed to have a range of medical applications. Alongside this new breed of products were your standard selection of sativas, indicas, and hybrid flowers—some of them grown organically, some hydroponically—as well as homemade hash, resin, and dry sift, and the on-trend butane hash oil and "shatter," all made with latest technology shipped in from the States.
So is Spain catching up with the US in terms of cannabis production and variety? "Probably not yet, but there is certainly great potential for Spain to be a leading cannabis market in Europe at least," said Levi.
Domestically, why has the rest of Spain lagged behind the north's progress? "The movement had its roots in the north, and with Barcelona being a main city of the north with a relatively big population, it really took off there," Levi told me. "Now, other parts of Spain are catching on to the movement because of the success in Barcelona. Other local authorities have seen the experiment in Barcelona and have decided whether [or not] they want the same happening in their province."
A local government's political leaning plays a large part in how easy it is for clubs to operate unmolested. Malaga's right-wing local authority has been shutting down the clubs with force, for instance, while authorities in Marbella have generally left them to flourish peacefully, hence why it's proving a popular destination for people hoping to open a private members association.
The Organic Cannabis Club (OCC) is one association that has experienced the problems caused by inconsistent local policy firsthand. The club's founder and only member of staff, Dominique, who's originally from the Netherlands, first opened a club in Malaga, but was forced out of the area by police. I met her recently at her new club in Marbella—a bright, airy space with its own terrace overlooking the beach—which is proving to be much less stressful than her previous location.
"Malaga is one of the only places in Spain where the raids are being done by the local police and not the national police. It makes no sense there," said Dominique. "I'm just glad to be out of Malaga. Here, the atmosphere is much better. Much more relaxed."
She told me how the development of cannabis clubs will come on even stronger if, in November, the country votes out the current conservative government. Mariano Rajoy's People's Party, said Dominique, is the only thing holding the clubs back. "Public opinion leans towards supporting the private club system," she argued. "In Barcelona, the mayor suddenly announced that he would close down 80 percent of the cannabis clubs right before the election. You know what happened? He's not the mayor any more."
Of course, it's highly unlikely that Xavier Trias was replaced by Ada Colua earlier this year purely because of his views on cannabis clubs. But considering the associations in Catalonia, of which Barcelona is the capital, reportedly boast over 165,000 members (about 2 percent of the Catalonian population) it's clear that there's a dedicated network of patrons in the area.
Dominique told me that associations in other areas should use this as inspiration if they want to develop, saying that clubs could become far more influential if they worked together politically. "I think we should get together properly as a united front in order to have lobbying power with local and national governments," she said. "When we become a significant united body, politicians will listen to us in order to get votes in the elections—but if we are all just hiding, they won't do anything for us."
Visiting Marbella, I found a community optimistic about its place in Spain's cannabis scene, but aware of the fact that there are still a number of forces working against it. So much has changed within the past five years, and there's scope for more in the half decade to come. However, as Dominique made me realize, that change might never be realized unless there's a concerted, communal effort from all involved.