A Brief History of Cannabis Policies in Spain (1968-2003)

By Gamella, Juan F.; Rodrigo, Maria Luisa Jiménez | Journal of Drug Issues, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

A Brief History of Cannabis Policies in Spain (1968-2003)


Gamella, Juan F., Rodrigo, Maria Luisa Jiménez, Journal of Drug Issues


Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to decriminalize drug use and one of the last to embrace harm reduction. As such, Spain's drug policies often appear to be rather contradictory. In this paper we will review the current status of drug laws and the major drug policies that have been implemented in Spain over the last 25 years concerning cannabis; their demographic, political, and economic contexts; and their apparent consequences. We will follow a chronological approach that outlines every major change that occurred during that period while trying to provide some sociopolitical background. We have divided the period under study into four major phases. Each phase addresses a major political change or shift in the social response to drug-related problems. In this account, we will apply to cannabis policies the conceptual distinctions introduced by MacCoun and Reuter in their recent revision of alternative drug policies (2001), especially their tripartite division between punitive, depenalizing, and legalizing regimes and the associated processes of promotion and commercialization. One essential question that concerns the Spanish case is the relationship between legal changes, their implementation, and long-term oscillations in consumption rates.

INTRODUCTION

As one of the first countries in Europe to decriminalize drug use, and one of the last to embrace harm reduction, Spain's drug policies often appear to be rather contradictory. Some of these inconsistencies disappear when legal and political measures are seen in a processual and historical light, as in the last decades Spain has undergone a major sociopolitical transformation. But there are crucial aspects of drug control where contradictions remain pointing to conflicts among powers of the state, regional and national governments, and different sectors of civil society that support disparate views of illegal drug use and its consequences. Today, cannabis policies embody many of these conflicts during a critical time when the use of this drug is reaching record levels, and the world supply for cannabis has established some of its central entrepots in Spain (see European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction [EMCDDA], 2003).

Now, as is also true in other Western countries, measures concerning hashish and marijuana are the most "active policy battlefront" in the drug policy debate (MacCoun & Reuter, 2001, p. 6). Although for more than a century there was a traditional consumption of marijuana related to the Spanish colonies in Northern Africa, the recent expansion of cannabis is an offshoot of the "drug revolution" of the late 1960s. Since the mid 1970s, cannabis derivatives have become the illicit drugs most often traded and consumed in Spain. After a decrease in the late 1980s, the consumption of cannabis in the last decade has grown continuously among teenagers and young adults (Observatorio Espanol sobre Drogas [OED], 2002b, 2003). By 2001, over 1.7 million people were using cannabis regularly, a portion of them daily (OED, 2003). In the new adolescent cohorts, those who have tried cannabis are becoming a majority (OED, 2002a). Therefore, three generations of Spaniards have smoked cannabis, and this drug is the center of a huge illegal market and a meaningful modern tradition (Gamella & Jiménez Rodrigo, 2003).

Moreover, cannabis is currently the cause of a social divide and a symbolic and political confrontation (Elzo et al., 1999; Megias, Comas, Elzo, Navarro, & Romani, 2000). Supporters of the present prohibitionist regime (and of an even more punitive one) see marijuana and its resin as dangerous drugs, harmful to physical and mental health, and the necessary gateway for the use of "harder" drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, or heroin. Prohibitionists oppose any leniency in respect to cannabis dealers or those indulging in home cultivation, seed sales, and even consumption.

Among its defenders, marijuana is seen as safer, purer, and more natural than alcohol or tobacco: a nonaddictive, benign, and even therapeutic "green" drug. …

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