Alternative regulatory models: the case for cannabis social clubs

Cannabis social clubs can offer a novel and cost-effective model of non-profit cannabis production

The debates around cannabis legislation taking place in the present tend to be highly oversimplified. They jump back and forth between the pros and cons of prohibition and liberalization without getting anywhere close to the specifics of the possible regulatory models.  Such is the opinion advanced by an international research team, who have just recently published a review piece on the implementation of cannabis social clubs in the countries of Spain, Belgium and Uruguay.

Among other models of cannabis regulation that have been tried around the world, the authors briefly mention locally controlled retail sales (in line with the Dutch coffee-shop model), permission for home cultivation, limited for-profit license grants, and government monopoly. Cannabis social clubs (CSCs), which have been less explored, could provide an interesting alternative.

The authors define CSCs as “legally constituted non-profit associations of cannabis consumers, who collectively cultivate cannabis plants to meet the personal needs of their adult members.” These can be set in any country where personal cannabis cultivation has been decriminalized and freedom of association is granted. They provide obvious logistical and social benefits, while ideally they also reduce personal contacts with illegal markets and protect public health via rigorous product quality controls.

CSCs took slightly different directions in the three countries examined. In Uruguay, these clubs are tightly regulated, whereas the clubs in Spain and Belgium reside in a kind of legal grey area. The low numbers of members per club in Belgium and Uruguay (5-20) contrast with those of Spain, with averages ranging from 800 to 1000 members.

Most clubs limit their membership to local adults who are already known by other senior members, but some exceptions have been observed. The authors discuss the case of a few clubs in Barcelona that are known to accept touristic clients and adopt more pro-profit tonalities.

Rules for clubs’ location, cultivation and product distribution also vary widely. In some cases the clubs have taken the liberty to establish these rules, while in others the local governments issued their own directives. For instance, in Uruguay clubs cannot be established in the proximity of schools and addiction clinics (150m), nor near other clubs of the same nature (1km).

The size of the crops in Spain follows a rough estimate of member demand, while in Belgium a ‘one-plant per member’ policy is the norm. In Uruguay, the law limits a club crop to a maximum of 99 flowered plants. Here each person is allowed to receive 40g of cannabis per month, and any surplus must be promptly destroyed. In Belgium the maximum amount is slightly lower (10-30g), while in Spain it is higher (60-90g).

Prices in European clubs range from 5 to 15€ per gram (7-21 CAD). In addition to this, members pay annual fees around 25€ (35 CAD). In contrast, the Uruguayan clubs charge a monthly fee between 25 and 90 USD (33-120 CAD), which already includes the price of 40g product per member. The authors reason that the Uruguayan model might promote higher levels of consumption, although they lack any evidence to substantiate their concern.

When it comes to cultivation itself, the Spanish clubs employ a mixture of hired growers and membership volunteering, with some clubs also purchasing products from the black market. In Belgium and Uruguay members carry the bulk of the work, and all the cannabis distributed comes from their plantations. The authors found that clubs in the three countries rarely performed quality controls via laboratory analysis, likely due to the costs of these procedures.

The authors conclude that the case of CSCs could provide valuable information for the establishment of regulatory frameworks in other countries. They also note that as these movements expand, formal controls must be gradually put in place to cover the limitations of self-regulatory practices and non-profit goals.

“In our view, such a regulatory framework will need to strike a balance between sufficiently allowing and accommodating the self-regulatory efforts of those involved in the CSC model to date, but at the same time ensuring adequate governmental control with a view to protecting and promoting public health goals”

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