Better to Ask Forgiveness Than Permission

Spain’s Sub-national Approach to Drug Policy
Constanza Sánchez & Michael Collins
GDPO Policy Brief 12
June 2018

gdpo 12In recent years, the international debate on drug policy reform has intensified, and with it has come a productive exchange of information between academics, activists and advocates on the diverse models and approaches in different countries. Portugal’s decriminalization model is the subject of numerous reports and articles, the legalization of cannabis in a number of U.S. states and Uruguay is heavily studied. Heroin-Assisted Treatment (HAT) in Switzerland is often discussed, and the Czech Republic’s progressive drug policy has been much heralded. On the outside looking in is Spain, a country with a curious mix of cannabis clubs, decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, innovative harm reduction policies, drug checking, and more. It also occupies an interesting geographical position as a transit hub for drugs entering Europe from the Americas and North Africa. Yet in mainstream drug policy discussions, little is known of the Spanish approach to drug policy, with the possible exception of cannabis clubs.

application pdfDownload the briefing (PDF)

This policy brief intends to help change that, by shedding light on the Spanish approach. We will begin by describing what the Spanish approach is, before hypothesizing on why it is so much lesser known than its neighbour – Portugal. We will then look at the history of drug policy in Spain and how this approach developed, before analyzing some of the current drug policy challenges Spain faces. Finally, we will look at what impact Spanish drug policy has had on other countries, and how Spain is viewed both by other countries and by the United Nations’ drug policy bodies.

The largely unexplored nature of Spanish drug policy by international experts is in many ways understandable. The approach is complicated, and not easy to put in a box like that of Portugal. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the innovative approaches undertaken by Spain. The political system of the country – with a central government and autonomous communities – has lessons for drug policy reformers globally, particularly in places where local, state, or regional governments have broad decision-making power over issues like health. In particular, as we discuss, there are a lot of similarities between the Spanish and U.S. systems and how they have reformed their drug laws, with autonomous communities and states, respectively, taking the lead, often in the face of opposition from the central/federal government.

Certain autonomous communities in Spain have been able to push the boundaries of drug policy reform, at times in the face of opposition to the central Madrid-based government, or at times without its express approval. We characterize this sub-national approach as ‘better to ask forgiveness than permission’.

Much of the work in this paper builds on a March 2015 Open Society Foundation report on drug policy reform in Catalonia, written by our colleagues Oscar Pares and Jose Carlos Bouso. This paper intends to complement and update that work, which is well worth reading in conjunction with this. As for Spain, it may not be able to export its drug policy approach as easily as it exports flamenco, sangria or tortilla, but that does not mean that it does not hold valuable lessons for reform advocates around the world.


•     Spain is an example of a country with innovative drug policies which, with the exception of cannabis social clubs, are little-discussed beyond its own borders.

•     The Spanish approach to drug policy is best described as certain sub-national autonomous communities exercising their regional powers to pursue drug policy based on harm reduction principles and a rejection of the prohibitionist approach.

•     Over the years certain autonomous communities in Spain have been able to push the boundaries of drug policy reform, at times in the face of opposition to the central Madrid-based government, or at times without its express approval; a sub-national approach that can be characterized as ‘better to ask forgiveness than permission’.

•     While not every autonomous community has taken an approach that deviates from national level policy, and not every innovative reform has been rejected by Madrid, communities like Catalonia, the Basque Country and Andalusia have engaged in processes of bottom up policy development.

•     In addition to cannabis social clubs, other sub-national interventions include safe consumption spaces, Heroin-Assisted Treatment, take-home methadone, opioid substitution and syringe programmes in prison, mobile methadone clinics and drug checking.

•     Policy development in Spain can only be understood within the context of complex multi-level political dynamics, including what can be seen as decrim-lite rather than true decriminalization and the more recent shift of cannabis social clubs from examples of sub-national innovation to a state of legal limbo.

•     Unlike many parts of the world, discussion of regulated markets for recreational cannabis in Spain preceded that relating to medical cannabis, although medical users could access the drug through cannabis social clubs.

•     At the international level Spain generally reserves comment on policy shifts in other nations and has been criticized by the International Narcotics Control Board for some innovative policies of its own.

•     Despite being little-discussed, and sometimes being difficult to understand due to the complex political and legal landscape, lessons can be learned from Spain’s subnational approach to drug policy reform, especially for countries like the U.S. who have a similar history of states pursuing reforms without the approval of the federal government.