The cannabis social club model is now being incorporated by multiple European regulators. Born and developed outside a legal framework, the model originated as an attempt to regulate cannabis production and consumption on behalf of cultivators and users within restrictions imposed by international treaty obligations.

In Germany, where expectations over a wider legalisation of recreational cannabis were frustrated in the initial law proposal, the first cannabis clubs may start operating in July, after a controversial and widely debated bill completes its parliamentary scrutiny process – expected to happen in February.

In the Czech Republic, despite hopes for a braver take on legalisation, the government – for the time being – seems to be following in Germany’s footsteps. It has proposed a legalisation model based on social clubs and self-cultivation rather than on the desired commercial model.

In Malta, the establishment of nonprofit organisations distributing small quantities of cannabis was regulated by a 2021 law.


Legal but restricted


In all cases, clubs must operate within set restrictions in terms of the number of members and their background, vicinity to structures such as schools and sports facilities, decisions made by local authorities and – at least for Malta and Germany – consumption, which is not allowed inside the clubs.

“The model in the Czech proposal allows up to 500 members, so it’s not that small,” Czech Hemp Cluster (CzecHemp) cannabis organisation’s general manager Lukas Hurt told CannIntelligence.

“But I think the biggest focus [of the proposal] is on the harm-reduction side,” he continued, “so a lot of attention is put on who is dealing with the club’s members, which needs to be someone with relevant education and experience in order to advise people, and not just an ordinary person who knows how to grow cannabis.”

According to Hurt, who is also the publisher and editor-in-chief of cannabis magazine Konopí, based on the current draft, clubs will face high costs to comply with the rules – such as the requirement to employ expert staff.

Hurt thinks that while the Czech model is not as strict as its German counterpart, as far as limitations to clubs’ locations are concerned, other restrictions could make their operations so costly that cannabis may be cheaper for consumers to continue to buy illicitly.

“The worst thing is that there are so many other requirements – such as testing, storage, hygiene, paid employees with university education – that the price of the end product would obviously be similar to that on the black market, maybe even higher,” he said, adding that the current draft proposal was written by people who did not work in the cannabis sector and “approach cannabis like it was nuclear waste”.


Social clubs over liberal market


The Czech regulator, just like its German counterpart, was initially open to the possibility of a commercial legalisation system based on licences, which would have provided governments with fiscal income from producers and sellers.

By opting for regulating social clubs, according to Hurt, governments may be complicating their task.

“A market regulation is quite easy to write because we have examples from several US states and Canada, but a comprehensive bill on social clubs is really a nightmare,” he said.

At the same time, though, advocates of the social club system believe this model of production and consumption carries an added social value that commercial models do not offer.

According to Anna Obradors, director of cannabis seed bank Purple City Genetics International, clubs – especially if they allow consumption within their premises – promote integration and support among members, as opposed to a liberal model where users are isolated.

“It is a model with a lot of benefits in terms of public health, because it goes beyond cannabis use, linking it to a communitarian context within a society where social integration is crucial for health,” she told CannIntelligence.

Obradors, who is also the founder of cannabis consultancy Wecanna, is based in Barcelona, Spain, where cannabis clubs have been operating outside a legal framework for over twenty years.

While she believes regulation of recreational cannabis can only be good for consumers, she is also convinced that not all legalisation models are equally valid – which is why some countries are opting for the club system.

“A global movement that has been operating for many years in countries such as Germany is proceeding in the most logical direction, which is regulating adult consumption,” Obradors said, “but they saw that a neoliberal market model like the one in the US and in Canada can have devastating short-term effects, so they are working on a non-commercial, non-profit model.”

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    She believes it’s important to control cannabis but said if we distribute it through a system where consumers are isolated, “we are doing no big favour to public health”.


    A European model


    The first country to regulate recreational cannabis through clubs was, in 2013, Uruguay, from where this legalisation model was exported globally.

    In terms of Europe, the regulatory model – sometimes a partly unofficial one like in Spain, where officials have differing opinions on legality – is based on rights and public health factors rather than market factors, according to Òscar Parés, deputy director of the Barcelona-based foundation International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS).

    This, Parés told CannIntelligence, is largely due to the fact that, to establish a legal adult cannabis market, member states would have to defy the European Commission’s rules on drug trafficking.

    In other words, European regulators are turning to the club model as a way to grant consumers’ rights and respond to public health needs without breaching the international legal framework on the trafficking of illegal substances.

    In Spain, where no national cannabis regulation is yet in place, clubs were not created by the government as a way to regulate the recreational market, but by producers and consumers.

    “This model was not created by politicians but despite politicians,” Parés said.

    In Barcelona’s region of Catalonia and in the Basque Country in particular, he added, autonomous administrations have been traditionally more open towards proposals of auto-regulations promoting harm reduction in substance consumption.

    Recently though, the tables may have started to turn – at least in Catalonia.


    The end of cannabis clubs in Barcelona?


    Widely spread across Catalonia, cannabis clubs, while officially illegal, obtained a form of legitimisation from local authorities in recent years, when the city’s former administration approved an urban plan establishing requirements they had to comply with.

    Although Spain’s Supreme Court rejected the regulation in 2021, as it exceeded the competencies of a municipality, the city’s previous administration didn’t act upon the sentence, letting clubs survive outside a legal recognition.

    When a new city council took power in 2023, though, the administration, led by socialist mayor Jaume Collboni, openly declared its intention to shut them down.

    In January, in a letter to Collboni’s security councillor Albert Battle, co-signed by 179 cannabis experts from several countries, ICEERS asked the city’s municipality to support the social cannabis club model by “advocating for laws that respect and tolerate them” as well as by “engaging in dialogues for a stable legal framework” for the safety of their members and workers.

    “The administration’s neglect has encouraged the distortion of the social cannabis club model,” the letter reads.

    Parés argued that cases of misbehaviour among club owners contributed to a bad reputation for the entire model, which is now being attacked by the most conservative members of the local administration.

    “The model was corrupted by some people who came just to make a lot of money in a short period of time, and this made people think that all clubs are like that,” he said, “but you can’t blame these opportunistic operators for that when there is no regulation in place. Politicians are responsible.”

    According to Parés: “The original, uncorrupted model is still valid.”

    – Tiziana Cauli CannIntelligence staff

    Image: AI-generated

    Tiziana Cauli

    Senior reporter
    Tiziana is an Italian journalist from Sardinia. She has worked for both international and local media in Italy, South Africa, France, Spain, the UK, Lebanon and Belgium. She also worked as a communications manager for several international NGOs in the humanitarian sector.