Can the government impede cannabis regulation in Spain?
The days are numbered for cannabis prohibition in Spain
Is cannabis regulation possible with a prohibitionist government in Spain? Cooperation between various forces in Congress, changes in public attitudes and regional regulations in place suggest we have good grounds for being hopeful. Mariano Rajoy’s government has been and remains opposed to any changes to the law on cannabis in Spain. Nevertheless, the fact that it is ruling as a minority government, together with changes to public attitudes to cannabis in Spain, gives us room for hope that a shift towards new policies may actually come sooner than we think.
2016 was a very turbulent year in Spanish politics. The elections of December 2015 resulted in a complex situation, with no clear majorities, necessitating negotiations between the various political groups. And that is something Spanish parties are not really used to doing. So, after several months of hard bargaining, no alliance received sufficient support and new elections had to be called.
Following the elections of 26 June 2016, the political situation remains complicated. Nevertheless, the Partido Popular managed to forge an investiture agreement with Ciudadanos, one of the most successful new parties to emerge in Spanish politics. Mariano Rajoy thus managed to hold on to his role of prime-minister, despite his party losing a large chunk of its votes.
Therefore, for the next few years Spain will continue to have a conservative government characterised by its aggressive stance towards cannabis and its users. Given such prospects, the notion of regulating our favourite plant in a non-prohibitionist context would seem unrealistic. Nevertheless, cooperation between parliamentary groupings and societal changes give rise to hopes that the prospects for an in-depth discussion on this issue, with an outcome that favours those who want to legalise cannabis, are more than just a dream.
What does the general public think of this?
Public opinion in Spain has changed a lot in the last few years in terms of its attitude to cannabis. A large study published in 2014 by the Fundación de Ayuda contra la Drogadicción (FAD, Foundation for Assistance Against Drug Addiction), commissioned by the National Drugs Plan, showed that most Spanish people were already in favour of legalising cannabis. In particular, 47.8% agreed that it should be sold in pharmacies or other authorised sites and 6.1% were in favour of the unrestricted sale of cannabis. In other words, 53.9% were already in favour of legalising sale, against 46% who were against.
When researchers asked people their views on cannabis clubs or associations, 28.7% of respondents thought that “allowing controlled and responsible consumption” was a positive initiative and 22.6% “did not mind it,” whereas 13.3% said it should be banned as it would “encourage consumption” and 8.5% thought it “made a mockery of the law and should not be tolerated.” Furthermore, 20% said they did not know and almost 7% did not have an opinion. In other words, in 2014 there was a majority of 51.3% who were in favour or did not mind against only 21.8% who were against. Most importantly, those most in favour were young people. Amongst those aged between 23 and 30, 64% supported or did not mind cannabis social clubs. This means that in the immediate future it is likely that those in favour of regulation will continue to grow in number.
Given this context, the political groups are trying to adapt to the changing attitudes so as not to fall out of tune with the times in sticking with repressive policies which people are rejecting and will increasingly reject over time. And the political consequences are already beginning to be felt. On the one hand, the regulatory processes in the regional parliaments have forged ahead, and Navarre’s Law of Cannabis Associations is the clearest example of this. And more and more municipalities are coming up with regulations which govern the activities of associations in local areas.
What do the parties have to say about this?
Let us now take an overview of the various parties in the Congress of Deputies to see what chances of success lay head for a parliamentary bill to regulate cannabis.
The Partido Popular (137 deputies): The Partido Popular has been the bane of all efforts to ease cannabis restrictions and has spearheaded the criminalisation of cannabis social clubs (CSCs). Although there is a minority within the party who are in favour of a change in stance, in general we can expect them to oppose any changes to the law.
Socialist Party (85 deputies): Although nationally, the Socialists have for years had an ambiguous position, its local members in the Basque Country, Catalonia, Navarre and the Balearic Islands have voted in favour of regulation in their respective parliaments. They are also aware that the majority of their voters are in favour of clubs and regulation. Provided the discussion is conducted openly, especially on the basis of a technical and inclusive bill, it is highly unlikely they would want to go it alone and join forces with their PP opponents and they will surely end up supporting the change.
Unidos Podemos (71 deputies): This is comprised of the historic coalition Izquierda Unida and the new party Podemos. IU has for many years been the main source of support in Parliament for the cannabis movement. On the other hand, Podemos has had a very ambiguous stance on cannabis, given that some of its main leaders are against regulation, but prefer not to say so openly to avoid losing votes. Nevertheless, after an intensive campaign from both outside and within the party to put pressure on them, the ball is now in their court. Podemos has a Sectorial Club (an internal group) comprised of members of the cannabis movement, which has succeeded in forcing the coalition to support its position. Therefore, we can count on their support to change the law.
Ciudadanos (32 deputies): This new party, whose ideology can be characterised as liberal right, has since its foundation had a tolerant stance towards cannabis. Given that its leader, Albert Rivera, who has an almost messianic role in strategy development, is also close to cannabis groups and a regular supporter (sources close to him have told me that he is, or at least has been, a cannabis smoker), the most likely outcome is that they will support regulation when the time comes.
The Esquerra of Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) (9 deputies): This pro-independence party enthusiastically supports a change in cannabis policies, both in Catalonia and nationally. Indeed, during the doomed parliamentary session which ended with the June 2016 elections, it put forward a bill to regulate cannabis and put an end to the Supreme Court’s prosecution of cannabis clubs. I myself was invited to a presentation in Congress , so I have no doubt that they will be fully behind the reform.
Catalan European Democratic Party (8 deputies): The former Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, which continues to hold Catalonia’s presidency, has for years been supporting cannabis regulating through the CSCs, and this is evident both in terms of regional and municipal regulation. There is no doubt that its position in the Spanish parliament would be supportive.
Socialist Party (5 deputies): This Christian-democratic party already decided several years ago to unambiguously support cannabis regulation and the CSC model. It spearheaded the Basque Law on Addictions, which provides for the regulation of cannabis associations. It will undoubtedly be one of the main sources of support for change when the time comes.
EH Bildu (2 deputies): The Basque pro-independence coalition has for years been supporting the model of social clubs and a comprehensive regulation of the cannabis plant. Furthermore, it has clearly supported Pannagh during the entire court case which began in 2011. Undoubtedly, both its votes will go towards supporting reform.
Canarian Coalition (1 deputy): The position of this group, which at various times has supported the PP, is an unknown quantity. However, its single deputy is unlikely to carry much weight this time.
A possible and necessary change
Based on the calculations I have just laid out, there should be a total of 127 votes in the bag in favour of change, in addition to 85 votes that are almost certain to be favour (those from the Socialist Party). In other words, a total of 212 votes in favour, against 137 against, plus one vote which we are not sure about. In other words, the legal reform on cannabis should succeed by a wide margin. Indeed, in other matters, the government has already suffered a series of defeats, and it is likely it will suffer some more.
However, we should not forget about the Partido Popular, which, thanks to an electoral law designed to favour the big parties, still has a comfortable absolute majority in the Senate, where it could block the reform. Nevertheless, that may never come to pass. The fact that it is in a parliamentary minority means the PP has had no choice but to grant a series of concessions to parties whose support it needs to pass various laws, amongst them the budgets, which are crucial for it to implement at least some of its policies.
These concessions which the PP is negotiating include the agreement with the PNV to withdraw resources from the Constitutional Court, which the government had presented against various laws approved by the Basque parliament. These include the Law on Addictions, which was invoked precisely because of its articles which mention the regulation of cannabis associations. In other words, the Spanish government is going to allow the Basque government to regulate the CSCs, with everything that that entails. Therefore, if the law is reformed nationally, the most likely scenario is that the Partido Popular will opt for a conciliatory stance to avoid conflicts with its potential partners and that the reform bill will go through.
Obviously, all of this is just hypothetical. But it is clear that many things are changing with regard to cannabis in Spain. Perhaps some politicians may be tempted to temporarily block this necessary change, but the transformation which has been ongoing in terms of society’s attitudes to cannabis and laws which regulate it already seem irreversible. It might happen in this parliamentary session, it might not, but clearly, the days are numbered for cannabis prohibition in Spain.