Last Call at Barcelona’s Cannabis Social Clubs?

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.”

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Nevada Gives Green Light to Cannabis Consumption Lounges

Cannabis consumption lounges will be coming to Nevada next year under a bill signed into law by Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak earlier this month. The measure, Assembly Bill 341 (AB341), was signed by Sisolak on June 4 after being passed by lawmakers in both houses of the state legislature in May. Currently, onsite cannabis consumption is only allowed at the NuWu Cannabis Marketplace on Las Vegas Paiute tribal land north of downtown.

The legislation permits two types of cannabis businesses. Retail cannabis lounges will be operated by licensed marijuana dispensaries, while independent cannabis consumption lounges will not be connected to a retailer. Both types of businesses will sell ready-to-use or single-use cannabis products for onsite consumption by adults 21 and older. Live entertainment is permitted, but alcohol will not be allowed.

“You can think of it like a bar, except obviously there will be no alcohol,” Assemblyman Steve Yeager, the sponsor of the legislation, said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing, as quoted by Forbes. “It could be a joint, an edible, it could be an infused food or infused soda, whatever the concept might be.”

Yeager added that more original concepts would also likely arise, noting that ideas such as fine dining restaurants serving cannabis-infused dishes, cannabis-friendly yoga classes, and comedy clubs offering marijuana products could all become reality. 

“Whatever you could think of could be possible,” Yeager said.

Ben Kovler, the CEO and founder of multistate cannabis operator Green Thumb Industries, said that the company is planning a lounge for the dispensary opened on the Las Vegas Strip by GTI in May under a licensing deal with the founders of the brand Cookies, rapper Berner and his cultivation collaborator Jai.

“When people come to Vegas for a bachelor party, a wedding, or just to see friends they haven’t seen in 15 months, they’re going to want to get together and consume cannabis and pretty soon there will be consumption lounges and they’re going to want to come to Cookies,” Kovler said. “What better place than Las Vegas? It’s an experience city in the middle of the desert.”

Consumption Lounges And Social Equity

Nevada’s foray into cannabis consumption lounges will bring a measure of equity to the state’s efforts at marijuana policy reform. Before AB341, cannabis consumption was legal under state law only in private residences with the owner’s permission, leaving renters and visitors open to the disparate enforcement of drug laws that has been repeatedly documented. Consuming cannabis in hotels and casinos is not allowed.

“Consumption lounges are important because they help protect people from prejudicial law enforcement or being fined or sanctioned in a way that causes real harm, that perpetuates the War on Drugs,” cannabis and social equity advocate and Las Vegas resident Noel Gordon told Filter.

The legislation also has social equity provisions built into the licensing regulations for cannabis consumption lounges. Nevada’s legalization initiative, passed in 2016, is lacking in robust equity measures. Such oversights are likely to doom or delay legalization proposals today, a fact seen in recent and eventually successful reform efforts in New Jersey and New York.

Qualified social equity applicants who wish to open a cannabis consumption lounge will receive up to a 75% reduction in application fees, which can cost as much as $30,000. Under the bill, a social equity applicant is a person “who has been adversely affected by provisions of previous laws which criminalized activity relating to cannabis, including, without limitation, adverse effects on an owner, officer or board member of the applicant or on the geographic area in which the applicant will operate,” according to the legislation.

Additionally, the number of independent cannabis consumption lounge licenses will initially be capped at 20, with half reserved for social equity applicants. But despite the efforts, Gordon is uncertain the social equity provisions will work as intended.

“I’m not all that optimistic we will still deliver on the social equity pieces,” Gordon said. “We still live in a prohibition lite version of legalization here in Nevada whereby you can purchase and consume cannabis in your home, but short of that, if you were to consume it on the sidewalk, in a hotel room, at a friend’s place, you will still be subject to some kind of criminal penalty or sanction.”

AB341 goes into effect in October, and state regulators are expected to begin accepting applications for cannabis lounges in July. But with regulations still being drafted, it is likely to be next year before the first consumption clubs open.

“The Cannabis Compliance Board is continuing to review the bill and its requirements in establishing consumption lounge licenses in Nevada,” said Tiana Bohner, public information officer for the agency. “The Board will aim to promulgate regulations and begin issuing licenses by early 2022.”

Bob Groesbeck, the co-CEO for Planet 13, a 112,000-square-foot Las Vegas dispensary billed as the world’s largest, said that his company has been planning a cannabis lounge for the site since AB341 was introduced two years ago.

“Our SuperStore is one of the only dispensaries with the space on site and the proximity to the Las Vegas Strip to create a truly Vegas style club,” Groesbeck said in a statement from Planet 13. “As with the rest of our dispensary we look forward to setting the bar and showing the industry what is possible when your goal is to Out Vegas, Vegas.”

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