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I shut the lid on my laptop, turning to stare out the tiny window to my left. I had hopes of finishing my Hawaii story during the 13 hour flight to Barcelona, but so far was having no luck. Punching a drink order for two into the screen in front of me, I leaned back in my seat, playing over the events of our last trip in my head.
We were knocking out one a month now between our normal gigs, and the pace was starting to weed out the weak. The entire cannabis industry was picking up steam, and those lucky enough to be on the right side of all that momentum were finding themselves swept up in a whirlwind of almost overnight success.
The plane touched down in England’s Heathrow Airport and we joined the shuffle of passengers headed into the terminal to find a bite to eat. This was the final leg of our trip; two more hours of flight and we would be in Spain. We were here to cover Spannabis, the world’s largest international cannabis convention, now entering its 15th year. I had come out to cover one in 2014, and was impressed by the scale. Two stories of booths with waiters serving champagne and all manner of lavish production dominated the event space. The only thing that was missing was the weed; plastic houseplants stood in its place, and one instantly got the impression that things were not quite legal yet.
Four years later and the government’s stance towards cannabis in Spain was still ambiguous at best. While cannabis clubs were quietly tolerated in Barcelona, being caught with a flake of weed on your shirt outside of town could mean a €1,000 fine.
Spain itself was split along political and geographical lines, with Barcelona falling in the more liberal province of Catalonia. Catalonians found themselves so at odds with the rest of the country that in October 2017 a vote for secession was held, gathering more than two million votes and passing by a wide margin, in spite of severe opposition by the Spanish government. The government reacted by declaring the vote illegal, smashing ballot boxes and firing rubber bullets into crowds of voters, ultimately imprisoning nine independence leaders and holding them indefinitely without trial or bail. Eight hundred and ninety three injuries were reported, according to the Human Rights Watch. Thousands of Catalonians subsequently went on strike, halting public services in protest of the police violence.
I swallowed hard as we made our way through Spanish customs. I had packed my meds, along with the appropriate documentation, but we were navigating in a gray space, at best. A stern but smiling customs agent waved us through without question, and we rejoined our luggage before heading out of the airport.
Brian Workman met us at the rental car lot, happily puffing on a pen full of distillate. I gave him his first vacuum pot back in the medical days; now he was the lead extractor for Cultivar Syndicate and a regular on the Dabstar crew. Our flat in Barcelona was a 40-minute drive from the airport, and I took a few quick, deep breaths off the dab pen before melting back in my seat to enjoy the scenery as we shot down the Pau Casals highway at 100 kilometers per hour.
Things choked to a stop as we entered the city. It appeared the people of Spain had not lost their taste for peaceful protest. Throngs of women, many baring the symbol of Venus pinned to their clothes on small patches of fabric or scrawled brazenly across shirts in paint or marker, had taken to the streets to celebrate International Women’s Day by underscoring the inequities facing women in the workplace. Jessica scrambled for her camera as we passed a battalion of police officers in full riot gear.
Another row of Spanish riot police came into view, this time blocking our path completely. I quickly enlarged the map, looking for a way around. Jessica raised her telephoto lens to grab a picture of the cops as we passed and I quickly put my hand out to stop her. “They’ll break your camera,” I warned, a lesson nearly learned the hard way on a previous trip.
The final 15 minutes of our journey took two more hours as we tried to penetrate the phalanx of cops protecting the downtown area from the protesters, who had begun to tag the Venus symbol boldly across the shop windows as they marched, egged on by the site of police in full battle dress.
It was nearing midnight when we hit the streets again, setting out to meet famed industry photographer and longtime friend Sly Vegas at a local afterparty. Things were eerily quiet now. The protestors were gone; scraps of paper and dottings of graffiti were all that remained. Barcelona had a way of shuttering down at night that reminded me of The Purge. What had been glittering rows of glass storefronts an hour earlier was now ironclad, faceless stone.
I counted the 130 steps as we spiraled our way up the stairs towards the penthouse. We had gathered a small crowd of would-be partygoers who stopped outside to wonder if the castle-like building could possibly be the right place, and were now following us up the stairs to find out. I rapped loudly on the heavy door, doing my best impression of a Spanish cop knock. A smiling Peter Papadopoulos opened the door. “Jonah!”
Sly popped around the corner. “This building is older than our country, bro!” I laughed, shaking my head. He was right, of course. We made our way into the party, which was packed with locals and industry regulars from both sides of the pond. I looked around at the room full of flat brims and hat pins, smiling to myself. It was like being in a time machine. The people here in Spain understood the benefits of cannabis and had organized a community to begin slowly taking it back. It reminded me of our medical movement back home, and I couldn’t help but feeling a little nostalgic for the good ol’ days.
A commotion in the kitchen jerked me from my thoughts. A heavy-set Spanish man with a small entourage was having a loud exchange with Peter in rapid Spanish. “Tranquilo, amigos,” I said, opening my arms wide and embracing both men. A woman in the crowd introduced the Spanish man as Juan Carlos, owner of a local cannabis club that had been raided that day.
Max from Across International stepped in to translate as the man went on. An American had been picked up the night before while leaving Juan’s club, which had hosted Dabado Spain (a local hash competition) as a favor to famed hash maker and Bubble Bag inventor Mila, who founded and hosts the event. After a quick search (which requires nothing more than suspicion in Spain), several ounces were discovered. Rumor was he had pinned it on the club; either way, the Guardia Urbana kicked the kid loose the next morning and came straight to the club with sledgehammers. Juan went on, explaining the scene as he stood by helplessly, watching them destroy his club: “They tore down our cameras, broke every window, smashed every TV—there’s nothing left but a shell.” His voice was angry, and he had tears in the corners of his eyes as he spoke. “I pay water, I pay electricity. The bill for the smell of marijuana from my club is €30,000 euros a month!” I shook my head, letting out a low whistle.
In 2013, the Catalonian government made provisions for the acceptable use and cultivation of marijuana in their region and the club system was born. Smoke your weed in the club and you got a pass; take it outside and you got the hammer. Even the suppliers were fair play, often picked up as they made their club rounds. The clubs themselves functioned as lounge-style dispensaries with safety deposit boxes for members to store their stash between visits. The whole thing had grown into a booming business, and that business was in jeopardy of collapsing as the Spanish government attempted to bring the Catalonians to heel.
The next two days went off without a hitch. It seemed like all of Europe had turned out for the event. With High Times no longer doing their annual cups in Amsterdam, Spannabis was officially the largest cannabis expo on the continent, and it showed.
As the final day of the expo came to a close, a small group of us gathered at Terp Army, a local private club, to discuss our plans for a 500 kilometer road trip to Madrid the next day. “Madrid is not Barcelona!” one of the patrons warned, his eyebrows raised in concern. “They will arrest you there for any amount.”
To be continued…