Last week the region of Catalonia in north-east Spain passed a law enabling a network of co-operatives to legally oversee the legal use, distribution and cultivation of cannabis.
The move by the Parliament of Catalonia is the most dramatic cannabis law change yet in Spain, where similar reforms have been enacted in the Navarra and Basque Country regions.
The law got to parliament thanks to a popular citizen's legislative initiative that attracted 67,500 signatures, in excess of the 50,000 required to get the proposal debated.
It means that in Barcelona, Spain's second city, and along most of the country's eastern coast, from the Costa Brava in the north to the Costa Blanca in the south, ganja can be smoked, supplied and grown without getting fined or jailed, as long you have joined your local cannabis club.
It's a far cry from what's going on here in the UK where, apart from a few parts of the country where police have opted to go easy, the laws have remained frozen since 1971.
I spoke to Amber Marks, a barrister and criminal law expert at Queen Mary University London, who has published a paper on the legal minutiae around Spanish cannabis clubs, to find out more about how this came about and what it means for cannabis users in Catalonia and beyond.
VICE: Hi Amber, can you tell me why this law was needed in Catalonia?
Amber Marks: Up until now cannabis clubs in Catalonia have been operating in a grey area of law, because the Spanish supreme court has repeatedly refused to clarify the dividing line between social supply and criminal supply in the context of cannabis social clubs. It has repeatedly said that this is a task for the legislature and that the court will decide guilt on a case-by-case basis. The minority judgments in these cases all pointed out that this was unsatisfactory on account of the uncertainty created. The legislature of Catalonia has taken action by stipulating the parameters for lawful social supply in the context of cannabis social clubs.
What exactly does the new law say?
It provides a statutory regulation for the operation of cannabis social clubs, which are basically private members clubs that supply cannabis cultivated on behalf of their members. The law acknowledges the right of citizens to consume cannabis and the right of cannabis users to get information on the quality and strength of the cannabis consumed.
Cultivation, supply and consumption must all take place in private. No forms of advertising are allowed. Membership is restricted to adults who are already cannabis consumers and potential members must be sponsored by another member to join. Clubs must keep a register of members and limit the amount cultivated for each member to 60 grammes a month maximum for those aged over 21 and 20 grammes a month maximum for those aged 18 to 21. These maximums do not apply to therapeutic use.
You said this law was one of most progressive in Europe. How does it compare to say, Amsterdam?
In the Netherlands, coffee shops are tolerated within certain parameters, for example not selling to minors, limiting the amount sold to each customer. But there is no recognition of human rights or consumer rights there – it is purely for the purposes of harm reduction. Within the national framework in the Netherlands, local governments choose how to implement the criteria.
There are other countries in which neither personal consumption nor cultivation for personal consumption are criminal offences, but none with a regulatory regime for the supply and consumption of cannabis. The practice in many European countries in which personal consumption is not a criminal offence is to not prosecute low-level supply.
The Catalan law is the first to explicitly treat personal consumption and regulated social supply as one and the same. It is the first to justify the legislation as a means of protecting consumer rights and the constitutional rights to equality, personal autonomy, and development of the personality. The law makes specific provision for the transportation of cannabis cultivated, for its packaging and hygienic storage and for the testing of the product.
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How does it change things on the ground for the average cannabis user, seller and grower?Possession of drugs for personal consumption is not a criminal offence in Spain, neither is cultivation for personal use. But possession of cannabis in public is punishable by a large fine. It is a criminal offence to sell cannabis in the street.
Most people here get their supply from the clubs. The word "buy" is not used because it is a collective cultivation, so it is paid for by being a member of clubs. The law should mean that cannabis consumers can rely on their clubs staying open and that they will be provided with reliable information on the type and strength of the cannabis supplied to them by the club. It should mean that those cultivating and transporting cannabis on behalf of an association are not prosecuted for doing so and that those operating cannabis clubs do not risk arbitrary prosecutions with arbitrary outcomes.
Three years ago there was a problem with cannabis clubs allegedly being used to make large amounts of money on the cannabis market? How will this be tackled?
There is yet to be any conviction of any cannabis club for money laundering, and most clubs have been paying taxes. The law is very clear that clubs are not-for-profit associations and that all monies generated from the supply of cannabis to members must go back into clubs. There will always be people who break the rules, but this law will assist the enforcement of the law by clarifying what the law actually is and by making the operation of the clubs more transparent.
What does the Catalonian law mean in the global context of drug law reform?
There is a growing recognition amongst governmental organisations and courts around the world that the criminalisation of cannabis consumption and supply does not protect public health and is in many ways detrimental to it and that it amounts to a disproportionate interference with civil liberties.
Do you think UK will follow suit?
Yes. It's just a question of how and when.