Spain becomes cannabis hub as criminals fill tourism void

With high profit margins and low risk of long jail time, Catalonia is now the marijuana capital of Europe, police warn

The decor is nightclub chic meets Turkish opium den. The lighting, soft pink and electric blue. And, were it not for the sweet waft of marijuana, it could be the lobby of a Las Vegas boutique hotel. In fact, it’s one of Barcelona’s 156 cannabis clubs, known as asociaciónes.

The idea was a quiet place where you could buy and smoke marijuana, often grown by members, and only on the premises, but many are now businesses and, police say, fronts for drug mafias. With the collapse of tourism, the cannabis business is one of very few thriving in Catalonia, but beyond the low lights and chilled vibe of the associations, darker forces are in play. An internal report by the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan police, claims “Catalonia is the epicentre of Europe’s illegal marijuana market” and has become a net exporter of cannabis to other European countries.

With high profits and low risk – jail sentences rarely exceed two years – gangs from Europe are fighting one another to control the market, says the report. Over the past year police have broken up 34 criminal organisations connected to cannabis and destroyed 319 plantations.

The report says that social acceptance of cannabis, depopulated rural areas and many empty apartments are facilitating the creation of plantations. Police have uncovered indoor plantations with automated irrigation, remote-controlled thermostats and even odourless plants to avoid detection. In the province of Lleida, a group of growers used a drone to spot rival plantations, which they then destroyed.

Low prices and an ambiguous legal framework have made Spain Europe’s main marijuana producer, Ramon Chacon, deputy chief of the crime squad, told the Observer. “When we look at what has happened to other countries that are primary drug producers, such as hashish in Morocco or cocaine in Colombia, there’s cause for concern,” he said. For years Spain has been the point of entry for Moroccan hashish, so the distribution network was in place when the marijuana boom began, just as tobacco smuggling in Galicia in north-western Spain created infrastructure for importing cocaine.

In Spain marijuana sells for €5 a gram, compared with a European average of €15. Chacon says criminal organisations from all over Europe, who used to buy in Spain to sell at home, have now set themselves up as producers in Catalonia.

Police are destroying more than one million plants a year, mostly in Catalonia, but Chacon said this achieves little when they can’t get their hands on the profits. Money laundering and the corruption it entails “poses a threat to the real economy and the quality of democracy in Catalonia”, according to Eduard Sallent, the Mossos chief.

Cannabis seeds and pipes on display in Barcelona.
Cannabis seeds and pipes on display in Barcelona. Photograph: Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg/Alamy

Chacon said police have no objection to private consumption at home or in clubs, which is legal, but as clubs are allowed to produce the drug in proportion to their membership, he said mafias have set up front associations to justify their plantations as legal. The cannabis clubs have been around for years but proliferated after the Catalan parliament ratified a law in 2017, since annulled by the supreme court, stating “private consumption of cannabis by adults … is part of the exercise of the fundamental right to free personal development and freedom of conscience”.

map of spain

The associations exist in legal limbo. Eric Asensio, secretary of the Catalan Federation of Cannabis Associations, said the federation would like to return to the spirit of the 2017 law. Asensio accepts that organised crime is exploiting the association model. “In recent years, we’ve seen people driven by profit, rather than the spirit of the cannabis movement, take advantage of the ambiguity of the regulations,” he said.

Around 70% of all Spain’s associations are in Catalonia, where cannabis consumption is higher than in the rest of the country, according to a National Drug Plan survey. Catalonia also hosts Spannabis, the international cannabis trade fair.

A study of Barcelona associations, carried out by the Journal of Drug Issues, found around 70% of members are male and nearly half are university educated. Ten per cent said they smoked for medicinal purposes, while half the female members said they used marijuana to ease menstrual cramps.

For many, the associations are a refuge and an oasis of calm. Easing back on the blue-lit sofa, it’s easy to forget that this peaceful corner of the city is also part of a mafia-run narco-economy.


Stephen Burgen in Barcelona

The GuardianTramp

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