Cannabis Clubs in Spain: A Unique Model in Europe

April 2nd, 2019, Cannabis Law, International

If you are interested in exploring the cannabis scene in Europe, it is critical to understand that cannabis laws are set by each country’s government and constitute a complex web of varying laws and policies that must be carefully observed when crossing borders, even between neighboring countries with apparently similar attitudes toward cannabis consumption. Although there are many countries in Europe where cannabis use is tolerated, it is still technically illegal across most of the continent. Regardless of that fact, many governments have taken the position that police time and financial resources are better spent elsewhere, meaning that many minor crimes relating to cannabis and other drugs go unpunished. In countries that have decriminalized the possession and/or use of cannabis, stiff fines may still be collected from individuals that do not follow the letter of the law.

Many people are under the misconception that cannabis is completely legal in Spain, and the country certainly exhibits one of the most liberal attitudes in this area at many levels. In actuality, it is illegal to sell cannabis (other than seeds and some hemp products) in Spain and to consume cannabis in public spaces. It is legal, however, to cultivate and/or consume cannabis for personal use, whether for medical purposes or otherwise.

In order to get around the prohibitions on selling cannabis and consuming cannabis in public spaces, Spaniards decided to create private cannabis clubs in the early 1990s that were purportedly non-commercial entities providing “members” with cannabis to meet their personal needs. Membership fees were designed to cover overhead/service costs rather than the cost of cannabis in order to circumvent drug trafficking laws. By 2017, the city of Barcelona alone was reportedly home to more than 300 of these clubs, with some clubs listing thousands of private members. Annual cannabis industry revenue in the country in that year was estimated at $72 million. In December 2017, however, Spain’s Supreme Court ruled that regional governments did not have the authority to regulate cannabis social clubs and that their activities were essentially commercial in nature and thus illegal. Cannabis clubs continue to operate in the gray market and enforcement actions have been irregular and relatively unpredictable. Historically, cannabis clubs were exclusive to Spanish citizens but certain clubs decided to open their doors to tourists that paid the membership fee and provided an address of where they were staying in Spain. Acquiring and consuming cannabis in such a club was, for the most part, the only way for a foreigner to legally do so. Given that the highest court in Spain has determined that cannabis clubs are illegal, however, tourists take even more significant risks when they seek out cannabis in the country today. Accordingly, it is important to understand the nuances of any country’s laws before attempting to purchase and/or use cannabis abroad.