Tech & Rights

​'Reconquering Drug Policies From Hysterical Minds' - Interview With Òscar Parés

Catalonia recently adopted a new law to regulate cannabis market. Òscar Parés, the deputy director of the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service, explains more about the cannabis reconquista movement in Spain.

by Peter Sarosi

Drugreporter: Catalonia is a region known for its progressive cannabis policies. Can you explain us, how did this policy start in the past and what is the current situation?

Òscar Parés: Even though that could be true, I would say that Catalonia should be better known because of its committed activists and the role of civil society. Someone told me that the progression of society is driven on the streets and not at the parliaments, and this is an example.

The Cannabis Social Club (CSC) model or the associations of cannabis consumers is an experiment that began in Spain 30 years ago when different groups of anti-prohibitionists and cannabis activists tried to avoid the highest risk associated to cannabis (law enforcement, of course) and began to explore how they could grow their own plants out of the circuit of the illicit market. The Spanish law is very peculiar, which is not really well known internationally, in that drug consumption has never been criminalised, so, possession for personal use, and consumption in private spaces is perfectly legal. Also the Supreme Court ruled that shared consumption is not a crime if there’s no profit. The problem is... how do drugs arrive at the private space? That’s the path that those brave ones have gifted to the new generation. And this is not a romanticised history, many of them have been prosecuted and criminalised on the way.

On the other hand, the Health Department of Catalonia was one of the first in Spain to work under a Harm Reduction paradigm during the early 90s, which dramatically reduced the public health issues linked to heroin consumption and also balanced the stigmatisation of drug users. At the same time, it’s also true that that choice arrived late - between 1983 and 1990, 20,000-25,000 people died from drug overdose and 100,000 acquired HIV through injecting drugs.

Those two factors came together in 2012 when the Rasquera case went viral and politicians could not stay out of the debate on cannabis regulation. At that moment, nearly 450 Cannabis Social Clubs existed in Catalonia, some of them with a thousand or more members. The law that was approved at the end of June is the crystallisation - at the Catalan parliament - of those 30 years of battle against an inefficient and unfair cannabis drug policy.

So the Catalonian parliament recently decided to legally regulate the cannabis market. How did you achieve this? Is this the result of civil society advocacy or is the initiative coming from political parties?

After Rasquera a discussion began among the Catalan politicians and ended two years later with a resolution, based on public health criteria, of the Catalan parliament that considered the CSC as a tool to reduce the risks associated with the illicit market. That resolution was suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court because the government of Spain said that it was invading national competences.

On the municipal level, in 2016, the city council of Barcelona approved a local regulation of the activity of the CSCs that allowed the nearly 200 CSCs to stay open and working in the city. One year later, the previous political party running the city council raided most of the CSCs and shut down nearly 40 of them. Nowadays, nearly 25 municipalities in Catalonia have approved their own regulation, although those regulations do not necessarily focus on the cultivation or transportation of cannabis, they are more linked to control of capacity, sanitation, hygienic conditions of the venue, etc.

So, at the end of 2015, a citizens' legislative initiative that proposed the regulation of the CSC activities, driven by civil society, achieved more than 65,000 signatories from the Catalans. That text was finally approved last June by the Catalan parliament. It’s important to say that it was approved by the vote of 118 ministers of the 127 in total. That's very strange (and significant) to witness in the political climate that Catalonia is facing nowadays.

The model proposed by the Catalan parliament is quite different from the Dutch coffee shop system but also different from the commercial US legalisation model. Can you explain us how this new law would regulate the market?

This is the first law in Europe to regulate not only the legal regime and operation of CSCs, but also collective cultivation and transport to headquarters, as well as measures to reduce health risks (specific provision for cannabis packaging and hygienic storage and for the testing of the product). The CSC can produce up to 150 kg of dried buds per year and there’s a rule to avoid cannabis related tourism (you need to wait 15 days before you fill out your membership form and you become a member of the CSC). CSCs can’t advertise themselves or make any kind of publicity.

The bad news is that on one side, the laws that regulate drug trafficking and public safety are state level and the Catalan regulation can’t change this. On the other hand, the political party that is dominating the central government of Spain, the Partido Popular, is totally against CSCs and not very interested in having a mature discussion about cannabis regulation, so we can expect that they will bring it to the Constitutional Court, through which it would become automatically suspended. That’s exactly what happened in the past with the attempts to regulate the CSC activities promoted by Navarra and the Basque Country, two regions in the north of the country.

But, if I can talk about the elephant in the room, half of the Catalan population is in favour of leaving Spain in October and we don’t know exactly about the other half.. time will show. Even if this cannabis law is never truly applied, once a Parliament votes in favour (and with this overwhelming majority) of such law, the public perception of the cannabis regulation evolves in a way that is difficult to undo through scary drug tales in the media. Maybe we are just envisioning a draft of a future country's drug policy. Time will tell. And also, hopefully drug policy reform won’t stop with cannabis, which is a worry of different key players in the drug policy reform movement: the cannabis movement often seems to be only interested in cannabis reform. At ICEERS we are working to help advance drug policy, away from law enforcement approaches, and beyond cannabis.

There were fears that Catalonia would become a haven for drug tourists. How does the reform address these fears?

As stated above, there is a 15-day waiting period from the moment you want to become a member until you are granted access into the CSC, which seems like a good measure to avoid issues related to drug tourism like the Netherlands has been facing with their coffee shop model. Also, remember it is a private user association model where you can only become a member if you know another member, who then vouches for you as you sign up.

Do you have any estimates of how much tax revenue the legal cannabis market would produce? Does the law say anything about what this tax revenue should be spent on?

I don’t know how much revenue it would produce. The law, in its final dispositions, also announces the possibility of creating a new tax for cannabis with the objective of reducing the risks associated with its consumption. This aspect and many others contained in the law will be developed during 2017. On the other hand, a CSC with 600 members requires a team of 10-12 to open the door every day and so all these people are hired by the association and their salaries contribute to the Social Security.

What will happen now? What will the Spanish government say?

Let’s hope they don’t do anything, but as I said, there is a good possibility that they will bring it to the constitutional court and cut off the decision of the Catalan parliament right there.

Do you think that the social club model can be applied in other countries too? Are there any lessons learnt that you can pass on to activists in other countries?

Cannabis Social Clubs are an idea that the Spanish activists have created and it actually already has expanded through Europe and America. In Spain there are already several initiatives - to regulate the cannabis market - in debate at the Spanish Congress but the majorities are not clear. I’m confident that cannabis regulation will happen in the coming years, because, as surveys show, more than half of the Spanish society is in favour of regulating the CSCs, and, by the other side, the reform advocates are working hard - apart from the approximately 12,000 existing CSCs in Spain, nearly 15 federations of CSC coexist, and various reform actors such as GEPCA, Regulación Responsable, CFAC and RCN-NOK keep proposing models of regulation.

Nowadays CSCs are only regulated in Uruguay and Catalonia. I had the privilege to participate in some debates related to the cannabis law in Uruguay in 2012, along with the well-known activist Martin Barriuso and the Transnational Institute and had the chance to see how that piece was included in the Uruguayan law, which was fascinating. Each country has its specific laws to take into account, so the model should be adapted. This is an unstoppable movement, because society is reconquering drug policies from hysterical minds. It’s important to emphasise that the CSC is a non-profit, private user association model. This means that the aim behind it has to be community-based and transparent. I would recommend to read the publications of Tom Decorte and Vendula Belackova to know more in-depth about CSCs. As we have witnessed, if CSCs are not properly regulated or managed the door stays open to bad practices. The CSC is a perfect model to learn and move forward to an integral regulation of the cannabis market.

Interview by Peter Sarosi. Originally published on Drugreporter.net