Cannabis Social Clubs: Can they work in Ireland?
Cannabis Social Clubs (CSC) have been in operation since the 90s, but with recent advancements in cannabis reform, CSCs are again coming back into focus. Spain is often cited as the birthplace of CSCs, with which I agree. The first cannabis association was established in the 90s in Barcelona by the Asociación Ramón Santos de Estudios Sobre el Cannabis (ARSEC) whose goals included studying cannabis-related issues as well as sharing information with its members. Following a question about the legality of a collective crop sent to the public prosecutors, they planted 200 plants in 1993 for their 100 members. While the case was still being reviewed by the courts, the cops seized the plants. In what became known as "The Catalan Breach," numerous additional organisations arose at this time, all with a similar goal. Since those early days, many more CSC has followed in the footsteps laid by ARSEC, now in Spain, there are an estimated 700-1000 CSCs. Across the world, the CSC structure has gained popularity and is now in operation in many other countries such as Uruguay, Belgium, Austria, and Malta to name a few. While a grassroots movement was behind the first CSCs in 2010 there has been a large increase in clubs in Spain and elsewhere.
CSC’s federations are largely self-regulating, due to this, multiple variations of the model can be found. This is in part due to the lack of a clear regulatory framework in most jurisdictions and highlights the diversity of views and involvement of different actors in the management of CSCs.
To consolidate and harmonise the practices of CSCs, the pan-European organisation, European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) published a report in 2020. The report titled “Guidelines European Cannabis Social Clubs: A Regulatory Model for Cannabis Access” highlights that many clubs follow the same basic rules and procedures, but some did not follow a code of conduct or guidelines.
How do Social Clubs Work?
Most clubs follow several guiding basic principles:
Supply follows demand, not vice versa
Not for Profit
Public health orientated
Open dialogue with authorities
Social clubs work by a simple system. It is a legal association of adult cannabis consumers that, as a group, facilitates the cultivation of cannabis for personal use. The club itself oversees the production and distribution of cannabis to its members. Members allocate their personal allowance to the club, which then grows the pooled allocation of plants and in turn supplies it back to their members. As a closed group, it offers a safe, regulated, and transparent alternative to the black market.
The clubs are funded by a subscription/membership fee by their members. Each member then pays an amount for the cannabis they request, which tends to be limited to approx. 3 grams per person as a way of encouraging responsible use and limiting the quantity of cannabis that can be taken off-site and possibly diverted to secondary sales.
As they are simply an extension of the decriminalisation of personal possession/cultivation, CSCs have the advantage of not being forbidden under the UN drug treaty system. In the short to medium term, they can also serve as a practical option for decision-makers trying to move toward a fully legalised cannabis market.
Regulation/ Over Regulation of Cannabis Social Clubs
In 2012 Uruguay announced their intention to regulate cannabis, with CSCs and the option of home growing off the table. This journey to cannabis reform saw the establishment of a national oversight body The Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis (Instituto de Regulación y control del cannabis, IRCCA) which was tasked with regulating and controlling activities related to the production, commercialisation, and use of cannabis, as well as promoting and proposing actions aimed at reducing the risks associated with problematic cannabis use. As a result of international cannabis networking and activism lobbying, the option of CSCs and home growing was added to the list of reform measures, although a tight regulatory framework was imposed on CSCs.
The Cannabis Social Club registration system opened in 2014. CSCs have a variety of rules and regulations they must abide by. The must:
Register as a non-profit organisation
The name must include “cannabis club”
Registration with the IRCCA is mandatory.
CSC members must also register as individual cannabis consumers and select a CSC for their supply.
Non-members are not permitted in the CSC. To receive visitors a CSC must write to the IRCCA for permission.
CSC must have a single location for all activity, growing, harvesting, processing and distribution.
CSC must be 150 meters away from education, cultural or sports centres that would be attended by under 18 yr. olds, and also 150 meters from drug treatment centres.
The burdensome nature of a tight regulatory framework saw many CSCs waiting up to a year before they could open their doors, due to the large amount of paperwork to be submitted. To then require their members to additionally register as an individual consumers saw a difficult start to CSCs in Uruguay. The requirement of a single location for all activities has proven difficult in practice. It increases the running cost of CSCs and in turn, increases the cost of the cannabis product for members. This is problematic as people will continue to purchase from an illegal black market rather than a regulated supply purely because of the price difference. To reduce running costs, it would be preferable if CSCs could work together and share the growing, storage and harvesting facilities.
The first few years saw a decrease in CSC registrations due to bureaucracy and over-regulation, leaving many consumers still reliant on the black market. In the last number of years, the reliance on a regulated cannabis supply has increased from 33% to 60%, prior to regulation 68% of people were reliant on the unregulated black market. Although CSC had a rocky start in Uruguay, people have been increasingly willing to register as cannabis consumers to access a higher standard product.
Can the CSC model work in Ireland?
Cannabis Reform in Ireland is many years past due. Campaigners and reformers have been calling for reform for decades, but it has gathered pace over the last couple of years. We can see there is limited enthusiasm within the Government to embrace a fully legal cannabis market, the Cannabis Social Club can be the perfect halfway house.
We currently have the necessary structure in place to facilitate CSCs, in the form of our Co-operative structure. Irish people will be very familiar with the concept of the local co-op, first established in the farming sector for milk and other dairy products, it has long expanded beyond the original limited scope.
A cooperative is an enterprise which is owned and controlled by its members and operates for the benefit of its members. Co-operatives place considerable emphasis on the ethos of member benefit, member participation and member loyalty. Transparency openness and democratic accountability are also a part of the co-operative ethos. Co-operatives are uniquely associated with the idea of democratic control and being open accountable businesses accessible to all those who can use their services and are willing to accept the responsibilities that being a co-operative entails. Thus, singular emphasis is put on the idea that those members who actively used the services of the co-operative are the persons who should be in control and should benefit from its services. A corollary to this idea is that these members should also contribute to the financing of the business in proportion to the use they are making of it.
Democratic member control. Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions.
Education and training
Open membership without gender, racial, political or social discrimination
A Co-operatives guiding principles above hold an element of familiarity when compared to ENCOD’s guiding principles for Spanish social clubs. The two can be said to be sisters rather than identical twins, but it is sufficient for the purposes of establishing CSCs in Ireland.
While we wait and wait for an open conversation on cannabis reform. We can utilise the already successful structure of the Co-operative to implement CSCs. This would have a monumental impact on cannabis consumers in Ireland. Not only would it reduce criminalisation, reduce the cost to the state of criminalisation of cannabis consumers, and free up police resources. It would also have the added benefit of bolstering the “health-led” approach that our National Drug Policy is founded upon, by reducing the harmful health implications of consuming unregulated products and being a hub of harm reduction education for all those who choose to become members.
What needs to change to make this happen? Although it sounds like a simple solution, it will take some legislative changes. Speaking to a leading Irish Cannabis Lawyer Niall Nelligan, he highlighted the necessary changes that will need to be implemented. Even if/when decriminalisation is implemented in Ireland, which will remove the criminalisation of personal possession, there is still a separate prohibition against the cultivation of cannabis and a prohibition on the sale and supply of drugs. In total there are three aspects of our Misuse of Drugs Act 1977 that will need to be addressed. Additionally, Mr Nelligan highlighted that consumption rooms in CSCs may also be an issue due to our smoking ban which prohibits smoking tobacco products indoors. Given that the majority of Irish consumers will consume cannabis in a joint format with a mix of tobacco and cannabis this may create a barrier for some consumers. Alternatively, it may act as an encouragement for consumers to use another less harmful method of consumption such as vaporisation
Pardal, Mafalda. The Cannabis Social Clubs. Routledge, London, 2022.
European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) “Guidelines European Cannabis Social Clubs: A Regulatory Model for Cannabis Access”
How to Regulate Cannabis, 3rd Edition. Transform Drug Policy Foundation.
Law No 19.172 Marijuana and its Derivatives
The Irish Co-operative Society