In the past few years, Spain's freewheeling Mediterranean port city of Barcelona has come to rival Amsterdam as Europe's premier cannabis scene, with a proliferation of clubs where merry-makers openly light up. Now the Public Health Agency of the Generalitat de Catalunya has proposed tight new measures to regulate the clubs, and discourage the burgeoning cannabis economy.

The Generalitat, the regional government of Catalonia, has broad powers under Spain's decentralized system, although it cannot override Spanish national law. And Spanish law allows private cannabis use -- or for users to unite in non-profit associations to smoke together. As Amsterdam has imposed restrictions on cannabis cafés, the number of clubs in Spain has surged from some 40 in 2010 to more than 700 today -- more than half in Barcelona, the Catalan capital. But emergence of Spain as the "Holland of the South" has been viewed with dismay by Catalonia's straight-laced business elite.

Unlike Amsterdam's coffee shops, which are open to the public, the Barcelona clubs are for members only -- but membership is generally a mere formality, with some clubs allowing prospective tokers to sign up online. Now that will be changing. A first draft of the Generalitat's new regulations, obtained by Spanish daily El País, mandates that membership in the clubs be limited to Spanish residents, undercutting the cannabis tourism trade. Members will have to be at least 21 years old, and must belong to the club for at least 15 days before actually getting access to cannabis. Clubs will have to register their plants and submit to an annual inspection. And a maximum quantity that members will be allowed to access each month will be set. Although this has yet to be determined, reports say the max is expected to be between 60 to 100 grams a month (two to three ounces). A maximum number of members is also to be imposed -- a figure likewise still to be determined. Some clubs currently have as many as 5,000.

The Barcelona cannabis emporia are trying to keep a positive vibe. Jaume Xaus of the Federación de Asociaciones Cannábicas de Cataluña (CATFAC) told El País that while some of the proposed regulations should be modified, "in general, it's positive."

The Generalitat is currently ruled by the center-left Catalan Democratic Convergence (CDC), which has been planning a referendum on Catalonia's independence from Spain -- but is currently mired in a scandal concerning years of tax evasion by party patriarch Jordi Pujol. This could ultimately favor the more radical and more intransigently pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC) -- which also happens to be far more open-minded on the question of cannabis. Now the CDC government is trying to close loopholes in Spanish national law that give cannabis a little elbow room. If the ERC get in, the situation could be reversed -- with regional authorities pushing for greater herbal freedom than permitted under Madrid's rule. Will cannabis become the economic mainstay of an independent  Catalonia? Ojalá.

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