By Horaci Garcia and Joan Faus
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Heavily-armed police officers arrived in a well-to-do Barcelona suburb before dawn to raid a two-storey house that turned out to be packed with 800 marijuana plants growing under powerful lamps.
The recent raid, on which Reuters accompanied the officers as they arrested two Albanian nationals, is part of an almost daily police routine in the Spanish region of Catalonia as it cracks down on the booming illegal production of marijuana, often run by local and international drug gangs.
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With a number of countries mainly in the Americas legalising or regulating marijuana use in recent years, Spain being legally permissive with personal consumption and Barcelona itself hosting Europe’s largest cannabis-themed fair, such a clampdown may seem counterintuitive.
But police argue that the organised crime that has grown around the marijuana business is making parts of the region a dangerous place and needs to be dealt with to prevent gangs from entrenching further.
They say they are not generally targeting small-scale growers or users, who frequent so-called cannabis clubs that enjoy legal loopholes, but drug rings driven by profitability that export most of the cannabis abroad.
“When it’s a business that generates so much money, criminal organisations focus on coming here,” said Antoni Salleras, chief of the Catalan police’s organised crime unit, noting that foreigners, predominantly from elsewhere in Europe, Morocco and Latin America, accounted for around 60% of arrests last year.
Some real estate or transport services now work almost exclusively for producers, while there is an “elevated level of violence” between drug rings to protect plantations, triggering a “worrying” increase in illegal firearms possession, Salleras said.
Last year, Catalan police seized 26 tonnes of marijuana buds, three times more than in 2021, and arrested 2,130 people in what has emerged as one of Europe’s main growing areas on the back of its lenient laws, climate and other factors.
Worth around 156 million euros ($171 million) in Catalonia, where a gram of marijuana costs up to six euros, that weight would be sold elsewhere in Europe at two to four times the price, police said.
Consumption of marijuana and its high-potency derivatives is also booming in Barcelona itself, including in private clubs.
Barcelona had the third-highest amount of cannabis in its wastewater in 2022 among dozens of European cities, after Geneva and Amsterdam, according to a study by the EU drugs agency EMCDDA, though down from 2021, when Barcelona ranked first.
Cannabis – the term used for all products derived from the plant – is Europe’s most commonly consumed drug and the one most linked to breaches of drug laws across the bloc, the EMCDDA said. Seizures reached the highest level in a decade in 2021, with Spain representing 66% of the total.
EMCDDA Director Alexis Goosdeel told Reuters that illegally-grown cannabis has increased in areas with a climate conducive to large-scale production like Catalonia, a trend that “worries all EU member states”.
Private clubs, where buying and smoking marijuana is allowed thanks to legal loopholes and the absence of national regulation, have grown in number to around an estimated 600 in Catalonia, or nearly half of Spain’s 1,500 estimated total.
Their model, however, faces uncertainty as the new Barcelona mayor’s top security official said in March he wanted to ban cannabis clubs.
The mayor’s office declined to comment.
Catalonia used to be a transit area for marijuana until production started around eight years ago and has soared since, said the police chief. It is now Spain’s top producing region, with most exports channelled by road to France.
Salleras said Catalonia is attractive because producers can use properties left empty after the bursting of Spain’s property bubble in 2008, the process to evict them is lengthy, theft of electricity does not carry a jail sentence, and marijuana-related crimes carry lighter sentences than in neighbouring countries.
It is illegal to produce marijuana in Spain, but cultivating it for personal use or smoking it is not punishable if both occur in a private space because it is protected by privacy rights, said specialist lawyer Bernardo Soriano.
Buying seeds is tolerated under the premise that it is for collection purposes, while cannabis clubs are permitted by the constitutional right to association and the lack of a widespread judicial doctrine, although carrying marijuana is illegal.
In 2017, Catalonia fully legalised the clubs, fuelling their proliferation, but courts later overturned the move for procedural reasons.
Under self-imposed rules, clubs should grow their own marijuana, only let in adults who can buy up to 60 grams monthly and take 15 days to approve memberships to put off short-term tourists.
But many clubs, which are often barely recognisable from outside, do not stick to the rules because they are voluntary, complained Eric Asensio, head of the Catalan federation of cannabis clubs.
“We believe the lack of (legal) control is causing many problems.”
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(Reporting by Horaci Garcia and Joan Faus in Barcelona, additional reporting by Catarina Demony in Lisbon; Writing by Joan Faus; Editing by Aislinn Laing, Andrei Khalip and Toby Chopra)
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