Although the legalization of marijuana has grown into a global movement, advances are being made one step at a time. Each country must wrestle with cannabis reform in the context of its own unique culture and history with the drug and its prohibition. Signs of progress, however, are appearing with increasing frequency.
Germany, Europe’s most populous country, is decidedly on the path to legalization, perhaps as soon as this year. Thailand has taken a lead on the issue in Asia, and in 2021, Argentina legalized hemp and cannabis for medical and industrial uses, continuing the progress spearheaded in Latin America made by Uruguay when it legalized cannabis in 2013.
In Spain, constitutional rulings have led to the de facto decriminalization of marijuana possession and cultivation for personal use, although commercial cannabis production and sales remain against the law. But the legal-grey area created by a lack of regulation has spawned a healthy community of cannabis clubs throughout Spain, particularly in Barcelona, the capital of the autonomous region of Catalunya. Operated on a strictly nonprofit basis, the clubs give their members a place to purchase and consume cannabis while they socialize with friends.
One of the city’s most famous clubs, HQ Barcelona, can be found in the Eixample neighborhood near the city center. Best known as the site of the basilica La Sagrada Familia, the as-yet-unfinished masterpiece of art nouveau architect Antoni Gaudí, the area is also home to posh boutiques and hip restaurants. A few blocks south of the Passeig de Gràcia and another Gaudí gem, the Modernista building known as the Casa Milà, HQ Barcelona welcomes members to the club with music, activities and a selection of cannabis products including flower, hash and other concentrates.
David Madilyan, the president and founder of HQ Barcelona, is originally from Moscow, where he was born during the era of the Soviet Union. The son of Armenian parents, he has lived in Europe, Asia and North America. For the last 22 years, however, Madilyan’s home has been Spain, where he lives with his wife and children.
“Barcelona is my place under the sun, that’s for sure,” he says.
Madilyan has been a cannabis consumer since his college days in Moscow with dreams of creating a consumption lounge. “I’m a smoker,” he says, with a smile in his voice. “I’m a heavy hitter.” He has also been deeply ingrained in the underground industry, “moving a lot of weed” in Europe and beyond. Moreover, he was involved in the nightlife party scene, but as he matured, he longed for a spot where he could hang out and chill while the sun was still up.
“Why don’t we have a daytime club, instead of a nighttime club?” he remembers asking his friends in Moscow during the late 1990s. That was when he decided that one day, he’d open a club along the lines of the famed coffee shops of Amsterdam. Fast forward to 2012, when Madilyan had been living in Spain for a decade. After leaving the country for a year for a sabbatical in Bali, he returned to Barcelona for business. While back in his home city, a friend invited him to one of Barcelona’s cannabis clubs for the first time.
It was an experience he had a hard time believing, even as he watched it with his very own eyes.
“I was there just smoking, and it was crazy,” he remembers. “I was like ‘what the fuck is actually happening?!’”
Almost immediately, Madilyan decided that the time had finally come for him to open his own cannabis club. After going back to Bali to tie up loose ends and end his residency there, he returned to Barcelona in 2013 and started making plans. “It was all a dream, and I was chasing my dream,” he says.
Madilyan went to work, hiring lawyers to tackle the paperwork and substantial red tape. At the same time, he began scouting locations and started the creative work of envisioning and designing the club and how it would work.
“We can open a lounge, we can open a space and we can open a brand—all together,” he remembers thinking as he considered the possibilities. “It was like the whole realization of my life in the weed industry as I always wanted it. I always wanted to create a space where people could meet each other, smoke and chill.”
The result is HQ Barcelona, which opened in 2014. Keeping with the peculiarities of Barcelona’s grey market for cannabis, the club isn’t a retail cannabis dispensary as many have come to know in the US. But after joining, members have access to a wide variety of cannabis products to purchase for onsite consumption.
“HQ is a private smokers club,” he says. “It’s a social club.”
Unlike some clubs that can be cramped and smoky, HQ Barcelona boasts more than 4,300 square feet of space for members to stretch out and get comfortable or participate in activities. High ceilings (15 feet) are capped by skylights to let in natural light, and an effective ventilation system keeps the air free of smoke to protect members’ eyes and lungs.
Membership in the club is by referral from current members to comply with requirements that cannabis clubs not be open to the public. But that doesn’t mean that it’s difficult to join in the fun. Madilyan says that members of the cannabis community who become friends of the club are likely to be invited to join.
While enjoying cannabis with friends is the main attraction at HQ Barcelona (the HQ stands for, naturally, hempquarters), the club also hosts activities and entertainment, including live music, DJs, exhibits and athletic competitions. For many members, the club is the focal point of their social life, forming “a close-knit community of people who live in Barcelona or visit the city frequently,” Madilyan says.
HQ Barcelona has been offering a festive and welcoming spot for cannabis lovers for nearly a decade now. In that time, the club hasn’t had even one fight on the premises, Madilyan proudly shares. Looking at the bigger picture, however, Barcelona’s cannabis club scene has experienced the ups and downs that often come with grey markets. In the early months of 2022, city officials and law enforcement doubled down on enforcement of the clubs with a series of raids and heightened inspections.
“We’re under big pressure from police and the City Hall of Barcelona,” he says.
Madilyan looks forward to a time when Spain joins the growing league of nations that are truly legalizing cannabis, including regulated production and sales. But he acknowledges that as a nation that’s more conservative than many, his adopted home is unlikely to take the lead on reform any time soon.
“We’re in Spain,” he says. “It’s a very Catholic country.”’
While the political will to legalize cannabis in Spain continues to build, Madilyan plans to continue serving his city’s weed community through HQ Barcelona. Eventually, he believes that lawmakers will realize that the cannabis legalization movement is too big to contain to private clubs.
“We really want them to understand that this shit is global,” Madilyan says with conviction. The man’s not wrong.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.