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Damian Marley's fireside chat concludes this year's Barcelona International Cannabis Business Conference.EXPAND
Damian Marley's fireside chat concludes this year's Barcelona International Cannabis Business Conference.
Michael Miller

Cannabis Isn't Legal in Spain, But That Didn't Stop Barcelona From Hosting Major Conference

Welcome to the first edition of our Cannabis Guide Global, which will provide timely information about the rapidly expanding international cannabis scene. 

This week: Barcelona 2019: The International Cannabis Business Conference (ICBC) meets Spannabis. 

Barcelona. Founded as a Roman city, the capital of Catalonia is one of the largest metropolises on the Mediterranean Sea. Its rich heritage is anchored by its awe-inspiring 14th-century medieval cathedral, and symbolized by the architecture of Gaudí and Montaner, the artwork of Picasso, Miro and Dalí, all overseen by the watchful eye of Columbus, eternally looking to the horizon from his 19th-century perch above the sea. 

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As one of the world’s leading cultural, tourism and trade fair centers, there was no better city to begin the 2019 global canna-conference series, which included the ICBC and Spannabis, the grand-daddy of European expos. As my plane’s wheels finally touched down, it was non-cannabis desires that came to mind: that first mouth-watering bite of tapas, any fish carpaccio, followed by an indescribable squid ink risotto, all washed down by a chilled, crisp glass of Rueda-Verdejo.

Struggling through jet-lag–induced tossing and turning, I grabbed some sweats for a 2 a.m. city loop to induce a few hours of sleep. The physical peace not available in my bed came in the form of inner peace instead. Barcelona’s beauty, experienced through the pitch-black, early morning lens of unnatural silence and solitude, was my ultimate Barcelona welcome. 

As I reached the port-side termination point of Las Ramblas, my gaze tilted skyward to Monumento a Colon: the 1888 monument constructed entirely by Catalans, the towering 60 meters of Christopher Columbus, Spain’s hall of fame explorer, pointing to the New World. It was the starlit column that intrigued me with its beautifully sculpted bronze, elongated, green leaves climbing gracefully. A surprise to most, even Spaniards, these leaves are the leaves of the cannabis sativa plant. 

Why did the sculptor of this monument incorporate cannabis leaves into this prominent civic monument? The answer, while an important historical fact, has been relegated to a historical footnote. This memorial is, in fact, not only to the achievements of a dauntless explorer but also to Mother Nature and the plant that she provided him. 

Without Spain’s access to the plant bearing these leaves, Columbus could not have made his journey. Imagine, no Niña, no Pinta and no Santa Maria. None could have left the harbor, as their flags, sails, rigging and ropes were all made of hemp fiber. Mixed with tar, hemp fibers filled ship seams, making them watertight. Ship’s holds were filled with hemp seeds as a food and protein source and to plant upon arrival. Columbus read a Bible printed on hemp paper by the glow of lamps burning hemp oil. Clothing worn by his crew was made of hemp fiber. 

Cannabis sativa is the newly legal (or shall I say re-legalized) plant, thanks to the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill. It's now time for America to officially recognize the plant responsible for its discovery. 

Choosing Barcelona for the conference locale was like having a conference of vegans in Texas, as cannabis is technically not legal in Spain. Spain’s population, however, does not seem too concerned with legality, as its unofficial per-capita consumption rate is an estimated 30%, one of the highest in the world.

While Spain decriminalized cannabis possession and possesses highly respected cannabinoid research centers, "legal" cannabis is a misnomer; it is strictly limited to physician-prescribed, cannabis-based medicines.

Spain’s market potential is enormous: an estimated 3 billion euro in market value and nearly 30 million potential consumers. Personal consumption is limited to invite-only, annual membership to one of the estimated 800 social clubs that dot the cityscape. These range from pseudo-legal high-end to downright low-end black market; from architecturally significant, signage-free brownstones to veritable smoke-filled subterranean dungeons. Membership allows purchase of acceptable cannabis at luxury pricing. 

ICBC is a multicountry business conference that seeks to balance networking and education with a multipronged focus on business, culture, politics, science, history and advocacy. The demographic of the 250 attendees ranged from 35 to 60 years old, all well attired and groomed, and its geography made up a veritable cannabis United Nations. Presentations by industry experts covered topics including investment and capital markets, international investing, social clubs, and the global regulatory climate, which culminated in an entertaining fireside chat with Damian Marley.

Spannabis festival attendees enjoy hemp-infused everything in the consumption zone.EXPAND
Spannabis festival attendees enjoy hemp-infused everything in the consumption zone.
Michael Miller

Spannabis: The 16th edition of the self-proclaimed largest fair in the world was a palpable contrast from the day before. Arriving early (I thought), I groaned as a mass of people appeared two blocks in front of the entrance. I inhaled and I exhaled; not because the tattooed words on the back of the woman’s neck in front of me instructed me to do so but because I became ensconced in a cannabis-style mosh pit, surrounded by an estimated 25,000 people, salivating to enter. Muscles flexed as my shoulder was grabbed, until I realized the grabber was a Spannabis security guard offering assistance to the “fast track” aisle, away from the ever-increasing mass of pulsating flesh. 

Tents encircled an outdoor food, music, consumption and anything-goes court. The demographic, other than a substantial portion of California’s cannabis industry leadership, ranged from early 20s to 40s, with a sizable group of old-school, Euro hippie-rebels in attendance. The attire: a fashionista’s nightmare, that wonderful cross between 1960s grunge and homelessness. The hygiene? Deodorant would have been a swag-bag blessing. The expo floor spreading among the series of tents consisted of about 50% seeds (due to illegality and only home-grow options in Europe), 30% related growing equipment and nutritionals, and about 20% smoke-shop paraphernalia, including an extraordinary array of falsely labeled cannabis products that were in fact cannabis-free. Clearly, no Bureau of Cannabis Control or FDA style oversight exists in Spain at the moment. 

Spannabis should be renamed "Sphempabis" for a semblance of truth in advertising. All in all, the ultimate cannabis event devoid of cannabis. Either way, Columbus is definitely smiling.

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