Pubdate: Fri, 11 Jul 2014
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2014 The New York Times Company
Author: Suzanne Daley

Barcelona Journal


BARCELONA, Spain - On a recent evening, two vacationing German 
college students, armed with addresses they had gotten off the 
Internet, were trying to get into one of Barcelona's new marijuana clubs.

They were not members. But no matter. They quickly found a club near 
the city's central boulevard, La Rambla, that was willing to ignore 
the rules, helping them choose from a dozen strains of marijuana for 
sale in plastic bins before letting them settle into the cushy lounge 
area to light up.

Forty-five minutes later, they were back on the street, smiling. "It 
was very nice," said one of the students, who had researched cannabis 
clubs before choosing Barcelona as a holiday destination. "We will go 
back tomorrow."

The number of cannabis clubs that have opened in Barcelona recently 
has some experts saying this city will soon challenge Amsterdam as 
the go-to destination for vacationers who want to get high in peace.

Even as Amsterdam has wrestled with drug tourism in recent years, 
reducing the number of coffee shops where it is legal to buy and 
smoke marijuana and hashish, about 300 new cannabis clubs have opened 
in Barcelona and the surrounding Catalan region, a result, at least 
in part, of enterprising Spaniards looking for new ways to earn a 
living, experts say.

It is not that Barcelona officials have given their blessing to this 
new phenomenon. The clubs are operating under decades-old Spanish 
laws that allow anyone to grow and smoke marijuana in private or to 
band together with others to form a cannabis club, as long as it is a 
nonprofit organization for members only, something like a chess or a 
cooking club.

But in the last three years, new clubs have opened, particularly in 
tourist areas like La Rambla, in many cases circumventing the spirit, 
if not the letter, of the law. While some clubs refuse walk-in 
customers like the German college students, many of them offer 
membership (about 20 euros, or about $27) over the Internet or by phone.

The clubs vary enormously, from basement rooms equipped with foosball 
tables and huge television sets, to more elegant settings with 
designer chandeliers and fresh fruit drink bars. Some give marijuana 
away to those who use it for medical purposes and see a business in 
this area. Others cater only to recreational users. Few of the clubs 
are noticeable from the street.

The Rambla Dragon Club, for instance, which opened last year, is on 
the ground floor of an apartment building. Only a small sign over the 
doorbell (as well as the constant presence of young people squinting 
to read it) indicates its presence. It has the feel of a Starbucks 
without windows, its high ceilings and a mighty ventilation system 
keeping the air fresh. Some of the smokers sit at tables with their 
laptops open. Others sit in on sofas, watching movies on a giant screen.

Some cannabis advocates say the clubs are a bright spot in the 
economy. Though they are nonprofits, advocates say the clubs are 
generating thousands of jobs and tax revenues for the state. In 
addition to selling a wide array of cannabis products and hashish, 
many of the clubs also sell food and drinks and offer extras to their 
members, like live music nights and Pilates classes.

Albert Tio, the president of Fedcac, an association of cannabis clubs 
in the region of Catalonia that includes Barcelona, said the clubs 
now had 165,000 members, up from virtually none five years ago. His 
association was formed in 2011, with only a handful of clubs in 
existence, he said.

One reason for the growth, he said, was that young people saw the 
clubs as a way to make a living. Another factor, he said, was 
Barcelona's new antismoking laws, which went into effect in bars and 
restaurants in January 2011 and sent cannabis smokers, who are often 
also tobacco smokers, looking for new places to congregate.

"The reality is this," Mr. Tio said. "Consumers think this is better 
than buying drugs on the street."

Regional officials say that many of the clubs do cater mostly to 
Spaniards, including one club in which all the members are women in 
their 80s. But Barcelona officials are so concerned about the rapid 
increase in such establishments and this city's growing reputation as 
a place to get a legal high that they decided in June to put a 
one-year moratorium on new licenses while they consider issues such 
as proximity to schools.

"Yes, it's a problem," said Joan Delort, the head of prevention, 
security and mobility for Barcelona. "In a very few years, you have a 
huge registration of cannabis users. It is very hard to determine 
what is really going on. But in 18 months, you have clubs that are in 
a very small location, that have registered 4,000 members. It's just 
impossible that they could have that many."

Some of the biggest names in the marijuana world are here. The Strain 
Hunters, for instance, a Dutch group that makes documentaries about 
the hunt for native strains of marijuana around the world, opened a 
club here in March, on a charming side street not far from La Rambla.

With one-way windows that give the space an open and airy feel, but 
prevents passers-by from looking in, it has the look and the feel of 
an upscale bar. For those who want to get an early start, coffee and 
fresh croissants are available for breakfast, and members can opt for 
rarer cannabis products, such as pure cannabis resin in the shape of 
a butterfly.

Websites that review the clubs, such as and, are giving Barcelona clubs high marks for both the 
quality and the variety of cannabis products they sell, as well as 
for offering a far more pleasant atmosphere than most Amsterdam 
coffee shops, which they say usually offer stale marijuana.

On a recent morning, Olivier Vervaet, a 21-year-old nightclub worker, 
was at the Strain Hunters Club looking over the cannabis menu while 
having a coffee. "I joined because this was just a great place to 
relax," he said. "I can sit down, and someone will bring me a drink 
and a joint, and I don't have to worry about the police."

A few times a month, the police have stepped in, taking action 
against clubs caught leafleting on the street, for instance. But 
Edward Sallent, the inspector general of community policing for the 
Catalan regional police, said it was difficult to move against the 
clubs. "It's a complex situation because a lot of the acts and 
behaviors are not forbidden," he said. "Selling and trafficking are 
illegal, but consumption, no."

Many advocates say they believe the clubs are cutting down on street 
sales. But Mr. Sallent says he doubts that. He says the clubs are too 
new to know exactly what impact they will have. "There may be all 
kinds of costs," he said. "Maybe it will affect the value of 
property. Who knows?"

Some of those involved in managing the clubs in Barcelona hope that 
Spain will go further in legalizing marijuana soon. Though the clubs 
are run as nonprofit entities, some clearly represent big 
investments. One such club, RMD, has set up an area for members who 
use marijuana to soothe the effects of chemotherapy or for other 
medical purposes.

It even hired a doctor to discuss their marijuana use and to help 
them with any issues that might arise. Tony Levi, who coordinates 
this aspect of the club, said he became interested in the medical 
benefits of cannabis when his father had cancer.

He says he believes that eventually Spain will recognize cannabis for 
medical use and that the services the club is providing will be 
covered by insurance. "I do see a business model here," he said.

Rachel Chaundler contributed reporting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom