Catalonia, ‘the epicenter of Europe’s illegal marijuana market’

Left-wing parties favor regulating at least for medical purposes

Bags of marijuana weighing 250g confiscated by Catalan police in February 2022 (image from Mossos d'Esquadra)
Bags of marijuana weighing 250g confiscated by Catalan police in February 2022 (image from Mossos d'Esquadra) / Cristina Tomàs White

Cristina Tomàs White | Barcelona

February 26, 2022 07:34 AM

Police raided 662 marijuana plantations in Catalonia in 2021, an average of two per day. This is almost twice as many raids as in 2020 and almost three times more than in 2016.

According to Joan Carles Granja, an officer in the Catalan Mossos d’Esquadra police force, Catalonia’s climate is ideal for growing weed. There are also many buildings that are still empty following the financial crisis that gangs have taken advantage of to set up shop in. 

Spain is geographically strategic for drugs that are smuggled into Europe from Africa and the Americas. But when it comes to homegrown weed, Catalonia is a good place for farms as it is closer to the markets it will often end up exported to like France. 

Police warn of a notable uptick in Marijuana-related crime, with almost twice as many people arrested last year than five years earlier. Almost half of the people arrested last year did not have a criminal record, suggesting many have entered the illicit trade recently.

“Another factor that explains why Catalonia is at the epicenter of marijuana production is the unemployment rate,” Granja said. It was 10.16% in the last quarter of 2021, while among 16- to 24-year-olds it was a staggering 27%.

Cannabis is also the most popular drug in Catalonia after alcohol in tobacco. “Over 30% of the population has tried it at some point,” said Dr. Joan Colom, who is in charge of the Catalan government’s drug addiction policies. “25% of 15- to 29-year olds have done so in the past month.”

Cannabis and the law

But how can there be so much crime when weed is everywhere? Barcelona in particular is known for its cannabis clubs and it’s not uncommon to get a whiff of a joint here and there when walking down the street. So what is the legal status of this plant?

What is punished by criminal law is growing or possession for drug trafficking, which is known as a criminal offense against public health,” Joan Bertomeu, a lawyer from the Brotsanbert law firm in Valencia that specializes in weed-related legal issues, explained. “If you smoke in the streets or have weed in your pocket if you are stopped by the police you, can be sanctioned by administrative law but not criminal law.”

And while, for example, there are no medical marijuana treatment programs here like in other countries, it isn’t illegal to consume drugs at home either, but you could be in trouble if police think you have too much of an illegal substance.

If they arrive at your house and see that there is money there or there are bags to share the product in, this could mean for the judge that you are growing weed to sell it,” Bertomeu said. 

This puts cannabis clubs - which in theory are in the not-for-profit private sphere - in a bit of a grey area and could even be forced to shut at some point if the law doesn’t change in their favor. 

The politics of weed

This situation may seem odd given the widespread societal acceptance of the drug at least for medicinal purposes. But for anything to change, Spain’s Congress would have to legalize its use - Catalonia has tried but does not have the authority to do so, meaning all of its attempts to regulate it according to public health criteria have been struck down by courts. 

There is a congressional committee on medical cannabis, but up until now, there has been a lack of political will to legalize it, especially among the right and up until recently the Socialists, who are no longer opposed to its therapeutic use.

Esquerra, Catalonia’s senior government partner, presented a bill in Madrid with the aim of regulating the drug “in order to reduce its use and to fight mafias that traffick it illegally” - this, as was the case with proposals put forth by other left-wing parties such as Podemos or Más País, was rejected

Far-left pro-independence CUP believes that regulation is necessary “to ensure the safety of users” and has expressed concern regarding criminal networks and the illicit market, and while Junts, Esquerra’s junior partner in Catalonia, says it “does not have a defined position,” it did vote in favor of Más País’ bill last October. 

Liberal Ciudadanos, which on other issues such as the approach to the independence issue tends to side with the conservatives and sometimes even the far-right, is in favor of legalizing cannabis for both therapeutic and recreational purposes, with MP Anna Grau describing it as “scandalous” that this is not yet the case.