ICEERS: What America Can Learn from Spain's Drug Policy

By Ocean Malandra on October 25, 2018

Although Portugal has gotten a lot of press over the last couple of years for its radical drug reforms—the country decriminalized all drugs in 2001 and saw dramatic drops in overdoses and drug-related crimes since—often overlooked is its much larger neighbor, Spain. The reason for this is that Spain's drug reform has happened at a much more local level, and these local regions have pushed through their policies, everything from their famous cannabis social clubs to community harm-reduction and treatment-intervention programs, despite the central government and not because of it. 

Unlike Portugal, Spain’s drug policy is a grassroots movement that defies the government, more like a revolution in style and execution.

This “better to ask forgiveness later than permission now” approach to drug reform at the local level was outlined in a recent report put out by The Global Drug Policy Observatory (GDPO) and Swansea University, which calls Spain’s drug reform efforts “sub-national” because they happened without assistance from the federal government. Interestingly, the report also points out that this mirrors the state’s rights drug reform movement taking place in the United States, where certain regions like California and Colorado pushed through legislation that legalizes activities still prohibited at the federal level.

Spain’s success at fostering socially accepted and community-regulated drug use (Barcelona now rivals Amsterdam as Europe’s top cannabis-friendly city) and public harm-reduction strategies like needle exchanges and supervised drug consumption spaces are actually a much better model for the U.S. than Portugal. That's simply because the nationwide decriminalization of all drug use that happened in Portugal is unlikely to happen anytime soon in the “land of the free,” and instead a regional approach that undercuts the federal government is already in motion. In fact, the U.S. cannabis reform movement has been quite revolutionary, but there is still much more to learn and do.

With this in mind, PRØHBTD spoke to Dr. Constanza Sánchez, co-author of the GDPO report and the Law, Policy and Human Rights Director at the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service (ICEERS), a multinational non-profit devoted to drug reform and traditional medicines. She explained what the U.S. really could learn from Spain’s “sub-national” drug policy. 

“In the report we refer to the Spanish sub-national approach as a model of formulating drug policies and their implementation in which local administrations, and especially regional ones, have played a fundamental role in the adoption of policies based more on human rights criteria and reduction of risks and damages, even though criminalization in the penal code is maintained and the central government does not want to support policies that undo prohibition,” Dr. Sánchez shared from her office in Barcelona. “The powers of the Spanish central government [which would be the equivalent of the federal government in the U.S.] are broad in terms of drugs, especially because they have all the powers in criminal matters. However, the governments of the regions' [autonomous communities] have the authority in matters of public health, which allows them to decide on many areas related to drug use and the reduction of damages and risks [although they cannot legalize consumption and the drug markets themselves]."

In other words, by making drug use a public health issue instead of a criminal one, local and community governments in Spain were able to launch a wide variety of projects that promoted safe and responsible drug use. The country’s cannabis social clubs (CSCs) are a great example of this community-controlled and -regulated cannabis use. 

“There is an important nuance in the Spanish law, which is the doctrine of shared consumption that we explain in the report. It was this legal space that allowed CSCs to flourish. A group of adult consumers can organize themselves to cultivate their cannabis collectively, establishing an equivalent to cultivation and possession for personal consumption, which is not punishable in any way,” Dr. Sánchez explains. 

One of the big differences between Spain’s CSCs and the dispensary system that we see dominating the legalization landscape in the U.S. is that CSCs are collectively owned and not for profit. The immense success of these social clubs in Spain is being used as proof that legalization does not have to mean commercialization when it comes to cannabis consumption. The rampant commercialization of the legal cannabis industry is often cited as being against the interest of the consumer in the U.S., as company profits actually come from the overuse of cannabis. The Spanish model nips that problem in the bud by keeping things community controlled and in the best interest of the consumer.

Dr. Sánchez broke it down like this: “Regarding the CSC as an alternative model to commercialization, it seems to me that this is a very interesting intermediate point between state regulation [Uruguayan style] and free market [U.S. style]. This favors contexts where there is more education taking place, where the communities and the users coexist in a more organic, tolerant way, and there is a better understanding about the use of cannabis and the properties of the plant, and also about its risks.”

Spain’s CSCs provide not only an authorized, safe and comfortable place to consume cannabis, but they foster a culture of education and safety, not just profit. This is definitely something that the U.S. could learn from. There are also the harm-reduction programs taken up at a local level in Spain that include not just needle exchanges, which have led to a decrease in HIV infection, but also innovative programs like opioid substitution treatment (OST). By giving heroin addicts free publicly funded methadone treatments with no restrictions on how many they can have or how long they can continue, the country has significantly lowered its heroin overdose rate over the last 20 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heroin use has increased in the U.S., even among demographics with historically low rates of use, with overdose rates increasing fivefold in just five years. Clearly this is another area the U.S. could improve on, based on Spain’s example. 

While America has actually developed some of the top harm-reduction methods available, like methadone itself for example, the implementation of wide-scale harm-reduction strategies has met strong political resistance. The success of some harm-reduction programs, like needle exchanges for example, is because of support from local and state governments and partnerships with nonprofits like the North American Syringe Exchange Network (NASEN).

But the heroin epidemic rages on in the states, and many rural and even suburban communities have no access to harm-reduction programs at all. It’s time once again to look closer at the Spanish model. In Spain, local governments and communities have been able to create a sustainable drug policy without help from the federal government. With the states’ rights movement becoming renewed and reinvigorated by medical and recreational cannabis legalization, the U.S. is already on the path to doing the same. By applying these community-focused initiatives in Spanish style, the country may even be able to solve some of its most pressing social problems as well.

“The fact that regional governments took advantage of their space of power—despite the opposition of the central federal government—to be able to manage the problems related to drugs in their contexts in an alternative way to criminalization is something other countries can replicate,” Dr. Sánchez points out.

Thirty states plus the District of Columbia now have laws legalizing cannabis in some form in the U.S., all of them in defiance of the federal government’s prohibition of the highly medicinal natural plant. By focusing on public health as well as legal issues, especially as the current federal administration cuts more and more drug treatment centers and harm-reduction projects, this already-growing movement could become the largest social revolution the United States has seen in centuries.

“Focusing more on the promotion of public health, the exercise of fundamental rights and the reduction of risks and damage by making use of drug policies that fall outside the federal scope, sometimes without asking for permission,” Dr. Sánchez declares. “In other words, we must take advantage of the space that remains, however small, to implement policies that are more in line with human rights and harm reduction.”

She continues, “The lesson that the U.S. could learn from Spain is that the states can advance in the reform of drug policies—from the regulation of cannabis to other fronts such as consumer rooms—even if the federal government does not support them. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission!” 

To me, that sounds a bit like the start of the next American Revolution.

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