Even a first-time traveller to Barcelona these days would have no trouble easing into one of its most popular, if not immediately prominent, attractions—the famed, semi-underground cannabis clubs.
There are about 200 clubs currently in operation right now, most scattered throughout the central part of the city. They operate very much in the grey areas of the law, but nevertheless are open for business in a negotiated handshake agreement with the powers that be. Namely, keep below the radar and follow the unspoken rules to the best of one’s ability.
There are lots of those—which, very much like the early days of California, Colorado, or Washington, one must be in the scene to know. And even then, such operations can still get raided, or have their members fined up to $550 if the police catch them with cannabis on the street.
Generally, however, here are the ground rules. Clubs cannot advertise, market, or promote their own club or the products that are “dispensed” within the premises. Technically, they also do not “sell” anything. Members must “contribute” to “club expenses.” And one must also be referred by another member.
Don’t let this discourage you if you find yourself in Barcelona and need a place to replenish your stash. Just take your passport and some cash and you will be set.
It is very easy to quickly find your way into the informal labyrinth of clubs that dot the Gothic Quarter of downtown—be sure to also take your fully charged smartphone and stick to Google Maps. It is also easy to get lost in the maze of tiny, cobblestone, picturesque streets, often too narrow for anything but foot traffic.
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You will not get this perspective from a club employee or owner, since they are not allowed to talk, and certainly not to the press, even if they all give a thumbs up when I mention I write for High Times.
The best place to be if you want to sample more than one club is the old town—or Ciutat Vella, a part of Barcelona that hails from Spain’s seagoing and imperial past. Lush, tropical foliage adorns balconies that overlook narrow, almost Medieval streets. The lyrical tones of oral Spanish, along with sea breezes and inviting scents from street cafes serving fish and tapas, waft around you as you sally forth.
Once in the general vicinity, just type in the words “cannabis barcelona” into your browser. Convenient “weed maps” with directions will appear at the top of the list with no more effort. Search around a bit, and you can even find a WhatsApp group which is happy to inform you about the “best and closest.” Then it is just a matter of being able to follow directions.
The unwritten laws, including those recently decided by court case precedent, also require the clubs not to solicit new members. This means that even if you negotiate to the web presence of your intended destination, the chances are that the club’s initial electronic greeting will inform you that they are not accepting new members. Don’t believe that. They have to say this. All of them will advise you that you will have to identify yourself as a legal adult at the reception desk before asking any questions.
Once you arrive, you will (almost certainly) discover opaque glass doors that slide open to reveal a doorkeeper behind a glass-fronted counter. It is here that you pay your membership fee (of about $25) or show your token if a returning member. The memberships are good for a year.
Once sanctified, you enter a second door, which takes you inside the club.
The clubs I visited in early March 2022 are organized in a similar fashion: A single room with vending machines, low, comfortable couches and tables, and big flat screen TVs. There is also an inevitable counter where you can “contribute” to the expenses of the club by selecting your strains (or other products). You will also encounter a low-key staff who will not answer questions except about what is on display. The biggest difference between the clubs is their location, decor, and of course, the almost invisible staff and managers behind them.
Prices range from 10 euros a gram (about $12) to 50 in the posher clubs—usually in the nicer areas of the sector. It is also possible to get not only weed but edibles—some of which look like they might have just been imported (or more likely, copied) from California.
How the Spanish clubs are going to evolve is still an open question. But it is also clear that they are negotiating the tricky legal environment—and on the cusp of greater things to come—once the inevitable reform gets here.
Talk to Alex Aller for any length of time, and you will know that you have encountered a prime example of a Barcelona entrepreneur who is in the process of making that change come as quickly as possible, negotiated as it may be.
A good-looking Argentine expat in his early forties, Aller runs a unique management consulting service for about 30 of the clubs in central Barcelona. It is his WhatsApp referral I encounter before I even meet him. Since he is a member of all the clubs he digitally maps, a referral, even an online one from him or one of his staff, meets the letter of the law. It is a neat legal device to meet the complications of the current environment, but it works.
“Change is coming, but it is very difficult for the clubs at the moment,” he said on his office terrace in a central and hip part of town. His web business is booming, since he essentially acts as a critical buffer between the clubs, their management, and new business coming into town.
“Everyone has to be careful not to violate the letter of the law—although talk to a different attorney, and you will get different interpretations from every lawyer,” he grins. “I work alongside five lawyers in Barcelona alone.”
When asked what will drive final reform over the top, he answers immediately. “When Germany finally legalizes it,” he said, a bit ruefully.
But it is also very clear to Aller, as well as most on the ground, that in the meantime, they will continue to make a living—from both locals and the frequent visitors, including Germans, who are flocking to Barcelona now that COVID restrictions are receding. And those same visitors return home with an understanding of what their own domestic cannabis future may look like soon.
Change is, indeed, happening everywhere. It is just taking longer than anyone bargained for.
In the meantime, the cannabis clubs are welcoming both spring and the end of the pandemic. It is a complication that they all are happy to put in their rear-view mirror and just get on with the still-complicated business of being in business.