A COURT ruling in Spain’s Murcia region has highlighted how local authorities are using a ‘stoner tax’ to fill their coffers by fining dope smokers caught with miniscule amounts disproportionate penalties writes Conor Patrick Faulkner.

The recent ruling by Murcia’s Administrative Court No. 7 confirmed a decision from January of last year that concluded local ayuntamientos lack the authority to issue fines for public drug possession.

Legal experts told the Olive Press that the ruling paves the way for thousands of disproportionate penalties for cannabis possession to be overturned across Spain.

The original case ruled in favour of a defendant from Yecla  who was fined an exorbitant €10,401 for possession of 0.01g of cannabis – a substance legal to enjoy on private property – after it was, incredibly, sent to a laboratory for testing.

Crucially, the ruling declared such sanctions as the responsibility of the respective government delegations from each autonomous community not the ayuntamientos, stating that “we cannot conclude Yecla City Council has the power to sanction the commission of the violation as it did.”

The lawyer arguing the case, Yecla-based Francisco Azorín, explained to the Olive Press that it sets a precedent that could see thousands of fines overturned in Murcia, and could have an impact across Spain.

“These rulings can be transferred to the rest of the town councils in Spain,” Azorín explained. The significance of the Murcian ruling is, he says, that “it serves to revoke all sanctions for possession or consumption of cannabis imposed in the majority of the municipalities of Spain.”

The eye-popping figures in Yecla stem from an interpretation of the ‘recidivism’ clause [repeat offenders] in the Ley de Seguridad de Ciudadana, known in Spain as the ‘Gag Law’.

Controversial since its inception in 2015, the Gag Law is viewed by many as an affront to civil liberties because it sanctions things like taking photographs of police officers or protesting in front of legislative buildings.

It has been used to enforce COVID-19 lockdowns but is also widely used against drug possession. 

Jamie Edwards Unsplash

According to statistics from the Ministry of the Interior, 70% of Gag Law citations are for the possession and consumption of drugs on the street, with cannabis being by far the most common.

The Gag Law “establishes that in cases of recidivism, the sanction can be multiplied and applied between €10,401 and €20,200,” explained Azorin.

But when he heard of the fines in his hometown he “couldn’t believe it… we appeal fines all over Spain and thought no-one applies recidivism to impose fines of £10,401.”

An investigation revealed the systemic fining of cannabis users and willful bypassing of their legal rights in order to line the public coffers. 

“Some Yeclanos are financing the coffers more than others,” said Azorin, estimating that there could be up to 100 cases in Yecla alone, contributing up to €1 million and representing 4% of Yecla’s annual municipal budget. 

Similarly, Murcia City Council processed 10,161 fines for drug possession in a single year, recouping more than €6m. 

This is the informal taxation of cannabis users; a Stoner tax, in other words, and Azorín suspects ayuntamientos operate in this way across Spain tapping into a reliable source of funds.

“It is much easier to arrest people who use cannabis and are peaceful than to deal with other types of criminals,” Azorín suggests.

And the harassment is discriminatory, he feels: “We analysed the profiles and realised many of those targeted are Moroccan, Ecuadorian, or of Roma ethnicity.”

Some were offered discounts under strict time constraints that circumvented their right to appeal, exploiting people unaware of their legal rights, and thus more likely to pay up for fear of adverse affects on their immigration statuses.

In a small town like Yecla the police pressure has been glaring. Convoys are employed to stake out hotspots and wait for repeat offenders to leave their homes. In a town where everybody knows everybody, “the level of police intimidation has been staggering,” Azorín says.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one Yeclano described how he “was with people they [the police] knew smoked. They passed us in the car, searched us, and found that I had one bud of marijuana on me.”

He has been fined “around twelve times” and stopped countless others with nothing on his person. 

“Then they get upset and tell us if they see us again they are going to stop us.” His fines followed the recidivism trend: “they were €300, then €600, and now €10,401.”

 The ordeal has caused him “insomnia and depression. It is very hard to look ahead…my life has changed,” he says. 

“I have a daughter, a wife, a flat and I can’t make ends meet. I can’t put anything financial in my name. I can’t save, I can’t look to a future like this no matter how hard I work.”

 Another described how he has been fined four times for minuscule amounts on his person. His fines were multiplied “depending on the police officer, because some do target people.”

 “Is it fair what they do?” he asked.  “If you have been a marijuana user without even smoking in public, do they have the right to ruin your life?”

 The ruling in Murcia comes at a critical juncture in the legalisation debate, and Spanish public opinion is clear. Polling by La Vanguardia found that 90% of 10,000 respondents favour legalisation, but this momentum seems self-evident to everyone except the Policía Local de Yecla.

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