The Belgian Cannabis Social Club landscape

The Belgian Cannabis-Social Club landscape 2018

Findings – Despite an uninterrupted presence in the country over the last decade, CSC presence in Belgium remains rather volatile and vulnerable to external control pressure. The CSC landscape is a somewhat segmented field as cooperation among CSCs remains limited. At the same time, the support base for the movement is diverse, encompassing different types of secondary organizations ranging from national and international advocacy groups, to cannabis industry entrepreneurs and other consultants. Originality/value – This paper contributes to the yet limited body of knowledge on CSCs, by providing a first comprehensive overview of the presence of CSCs in one of the key settings associated with the model, by shedding light into the interplay between CSCs, and between other organizations supportive of the cannabis movement.

Keywords Qualitative research, Belgium, Cannabis, Cannabis movement, Cannabis Social Club, Supply modelPaper type Research paper.

Cannabis Social Clubs (CSCs) are registered non-profit associations that put forward a user-driven model for the supply of cannabis among adult users (Pardal, 2016b). Although CSC practices differ among CSCs and across countries (Decorte et al., 2017; Decorte and Pardal, 2017), core to this model is the creation of a closed system of supply of cannabis, produced by and distributed to cover the personal use of the adult members of the associations – which are typically run in a non-profit way (Pardal, 2016b; Decorte and Pardal, 2017). The emergence of these associations can be traced back to Spain during the 1990s (Barriuso, 2011; Val, 2017), as cannabis activists sought to exploit a perceived grey zone in the domestic legal framework, which does not criminalize personal drug use (in private) and has tended to allow “shared consumption” (Kilmer et al., 2013; Díez and Muñoz, 2013; Muñoz and Soto, 2000). The CSC presence in that country has grown since then, and currently, an estimated 800-1000 CSCs are active across the different Spanish regions (Parés and Bouso, 2015; Decorte et al., 2017).

Research into the Spanish CSC model noted that these associations are in fact part of a larger movement which comprises individual users and growers, grow shops and seed banks, specialist media (dedicated to the cannabis culture), other types of associations as well as umbrella organizations representing various CSCs – such as CSC Federations (Arana and Montañés, 2011; Marín, 2008; Marín, 2009; Marín and Hinojosa, 2017; Montañés, 2017). Such analyses have applied a social movement perspective, considering that the various actors active within this broader “cannabis movement” share the end goal of achieving reform of the current prohibitionist cannabis legal framework and advocate for a “cultural change that would imply the toleration of the use of cannabis in everyday’s life” (Marín and Hinojosa, 2017, p. 124, own translation).

The Spanish grassroots efforts were followed with attention by activists in other settings, who sought to develop similar experiments in their own countries (Bewley-Taylor et al., 2014; Blickman, 2014; Decorte and Pardal, 2017). In Belgium, while domestic legislation prohibits the cultivation and/or distribution of cannabis (Pardal, 2016a), the model has emerged as well. Previous research documented some of the Belgian CSCs’ practices (Decorte, 2015), but little is known about how the model developed in the country, as well as whether and how the Belgian CSCs have interacted and gathered the support of other like-minded actors. This paper contributes to filling that knowledge gap by mapping the evolution of the CSC presence in the country, and the nature of the relationships between Belgian CSCs. In addition, we aim to explore the broader landscape of the movement, by identifying and discussing the role of other secondary actors which engage with the Belgian CSCs.

This analysis draws primarily on semi-structured interviews with key actors within the CSC landscape in Belgium. First, we interviewed 21 members of the Board of Directors of the seven active Belgian CSCs participating in the study (see Figure 3)[1]. An interview session was organized at each CSC, in which at least one director participated. Second, we conducted interviews with two directors of a former CSC. The CSCs were identified first on the basis of a previous account by Decorte (2015). Drawing on that initial group of CSC contacts, through snowballing and ongoing fieldwork, we were able to map and reach the other CSCs in the country, both active and inactive. The interview questionnaire was adapted from instruments developed for interviews with CSC representatives by both Decorte (2015) and Queirolo et al. (2016). We draw particularly on the interview data concerning CSC foundation and general background, and on CSCs’ relationships with other actors. Finally, we interviewed organizations or individuals with whom the Belgian CSCs reported having a collaborative tie (n1⁄419). These interviews focused mainly on the goals of those actors and their relationship with the Belgian CSCs. All interviews took place between February 2016 and August 2017, and were conducted in Dutch, English or French, in accordance to the language preference of each interviewee. With three exceptions, all interviews were recorded and transcribed as close to verbatim as possible. These data were analyzed using NVIVO software. Each CSC and other organization interviewed received a random identifier (CSC1-CSC7 and O1-O19). When directly citing interview data we add a -D ( for interviews with CSC directors) or -R ( for interviews with other actors) suffix per respondent, numbered consecutively. To complement these materials, we conducted additional fieldwork, during which we were able to observe several moments of internal as well as public CSC activity and hold informal conversations with different participants. Key documents produced by the CSCs (e.g. CSC bylaws) were also analyzed.

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