Science, Tech & Environment

Fighting to Stem its Growing Debt, Spanish Town Considers Cultivating Cannabis

Spain remains at the center of Europe's economic storm. Unemployment is rising. So are the interest rates the country pays on its debt. And another round of austerity measures has unions warning of real social unrest. Spain's debt problem isn't just national. There are thousands of small Spanish towns that have borrowed too much.

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Take the village of Rasquera, near the Mediterranean coast. Rasquera is near bankruptcy. But the mayor has an idea on to save the town— growing dope.

Rasquera is tiny — about 3,000 residents. But its debt is huge: nearly $1.5 million. To pay it off Mayor Bernat Pallisa wants to rent some municipal land to farmers. Pot farmers.

"Marijuana is like any of the crops you see around here," he said, referring to local cherry and olive orchards. "Pot's something you can plant that brings you a profit."

A relatively big profit, compared to other crops, Pallisa admits. In this case, the money would be used to pay back funds borrowed for infrastructure projects dating back a decade. Nothing fancy, Pallisa says. Just things like better roads and street lights.

"Those projects have allowed people here live with a little bit of dignity," he said. "We didn't even have internet until two years ago."

But using pot to counter the economic crisis is controversial, even in Catalonia, where growing pot for personal use is legal. For starters, there's Rasquera's prospective pot growers. They work out of a small, store-front office in Barcelona, actually, about two hours away.

There, they have an association of cannabis consumers, with some 5,000 members who pay monthly dues. The association grows and dispenses marijuana to them. Again, this is all perfectly legal in Catalonia. The association's Mojslov Georgevic says the group needed more land for planting. So it approached several towns. He says Rasqueras was ideal.

"First, because it is the countryside," he said. "And second thing because the climate is good for growing."

The association should know. It's been growing marijuana for its users for more than two years — in locations it won't reveal.

What is new in Rasquera is that the association's partner in pot growing would be the local government. Elected officials, that is. This has attracted some negative attention from Spain's national authorities. Because while Catalonia's regional law permits personal pot growing, it conflicts with a national law against producing illegal drugs. It's like the stand-off between California with its medicinal marijuana law and federal authorities who keep raiding state sanctioned facilities.

In fact, police in Barcelona recently raided Barcelona's Cannabis Association, arresting key members and accusing them of drug trafficking. A judge has dismissed the charges. But Georgevic said the message was clear.

"A lot of people are saying it wasn't a coincidence, that the police wanted to make us look bad, accusing us of drug dealing. Just to dirty our image."

It's in order, he said, to sabotage a planned referendum back in Rasquera. As if Rasquera needed more controversy.

The idea of pot as a road to prosperity has already split the town in two. On one end stands a bar where the bartender proudly wears a t-shirt with a big green pot leaf on it. Folks parked on bar stools on a recent day said they couldn't wait for operation cannabis to begin.

"I am in favor of it," said a young man named Gayetano Pallisa, who identified himself as a pot smoker. "There are a lot of drugs that are a lot worse than pot," he said, "but no one wants to talk about that."

On the other end of town stands another bar — and another attitude. The crowd there was decidedly older, more conservative. A bunch of retired guys sat around playing dominoes.

"I think there are other ways to get out of this crisis," said bar owner Joan Marti. "Pot is still an illegal substance. Let them plant something else. Sunflowers," he suggested, "to harvest sunflower seeds."

People in the opposing bars barely talk to each other these days, laments Mayor Pallisa. He says the tension in town has gotten so bad he's decided to hold a referendum.

"There is a lot of fear," he said, "and pressure. You can feel it. When you walk past a neighbor on the street, you can just feel it."

Pallisa said if residents reject his home-grown rescue plan on April 10th, he'll resign. The risk is worth it, he said. Because he's seen what more drastic budget cuts have led to in Barcelona.

Last month, during a general strike against austerity measures, protesters set fires and broke store windows all over the city, as police fired tear gas to disperse crowds.

But Pallisa said he needs at last 75 percent of the people to say yes to marijuana.

"It would be absurd to move forward with the plan if half the town is against it," he said.

If the pot initiative does get the votes, this could just be the beginning. Georgevic of the Barcelona Cannabis Association said at least four indebted towns near Rasquera are tempted by the idea too. He said they're waiting to see how things play out here before sticking their own necks out.

  • pot4.jpg

    The Spanish village of Rasquera, population 3,000, has more than a million dollars in accumulated debt. To pay it off, the mayor wants to lease lands to marijuana farmers. The proposal sets up a clash between regional and national laws over drugs. And it's divided Rasquera in two.
  • pot8.jpg

    Rasquera's Mayor, Bernat Pallisa, hopes pot will pull his town out of debt. But he's feeling a bit cornered these days, as federal authorities threaten his plan, and his town splits in two over the issue.
  • pot6.jpg

    A pro-cannabis bar in Rasquera, where clients and patrons proudly support the mayor's initiative.
  • Pot3.jpg

    Bar owner Joan Marti says he's against the town working with pot growers, because he considers marijuana an illegal substance. Let them grow sunflowers for sunflower seeds, he says.

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