Last updated: April 7, 2012 12:10 am

First Person: Bernat Pellisa

‘I’m leasing land to marijuana clubs to pay our town’s debt’

As the mayor of a small town in the north-east of Spain, I’ve seen first hand the effects of the economic crisis. Our town, Rasquera, has debts and unemployment but it never crossed my mind that marijuana could save us from the recession.

That is, until we received a call from a cannabis association in Barcelona, asking to lease some of our land to use for marijuana plantations. In Spain, cultivating cannabis for individual consumption is not illegal and dozens of clubs in Catalonia are doing it. The only difference in our case is that for the first time a town hall is trying to regulate the plantations.

In February, we signed an agreement with the Barcelona Personal Use Cannabis Association, which has 5,000 members. In exchange for the right to grow their supply on seven hectares of our land they will pay us €650,000 a year, as well as land rental to the owner. In turn, we will provide security and forest management, creating about 40 jobs.

The deal will help us to pay off a debt of €1.3m quite quickly. Several scientists want to work on the project, too. The association will also be hiring people to grow, collect and package their cannabis, and we will make sure that they will be paid decent salaries.

Some people are worried, and one priest has even said that Rasquera will become Catalonia’s Medellín, Colombia. But we’re not encouraging drug use. What we are doing will help to put an end to the black market and thus drug trafficking. We want to bring this underground economy to light so it can benefit society and the 900 people in our town. And no, I won’t tell you if I’ve smoked marijuana or not because it is nobody’s business.

I’m not worried about being arrested. I’m confident that our plan abides with the law and the authorities will agree with us. Anyway, it’s not all about the cannabis. We hope to use the income from the project to promote our little town’s traditional products such as meat from our native white goat herds, our olive oil, our pumpkin jam-filled pastissets – sweet pastries – and our woven palm baskets.

For centuries, Rasquera was a town of herdsmen and farmers. In recent decades, neighbouring towns have grown richer thanks to the nuclear power plants of Ascó and Valldellós, but we believe there is another way to prosperity. We want to promote a sustainable economy with respect for our nature and our traditions. We have rejected offers from a marble mining company and five wind farms to come here. I don’t blame other mayors for their choices though. Everybody is trying to survive this crisis the best way they can.

But it’s been a struggle. It’s hard to make a living selling our products. The price of goat meat is the same as it was 20 years ago. We’re part of a European Union network of protected natural areas but we can’t protect our forests because of cuts in spending from the regional government. I have two small daughters and I want to do everything in my power so they can also live in Rasquera. It’s sad when people have to leave the place where they were born because they have no other choice. My own father had to move to Barcelona to work and we didn’t come back here until I was 12. He came back to cultivate olive and cherry trees and I’ve carried that on, but it’s not enough to live on.

My father died when I was 14 and I never went to college. I’m 39 now and I’ve done many jobs in my life: I’ve driven taxis and ambulances, I’ve cleaned windows, I’ve been a postman. Even though I don’t get paid for being mayor, this is the job that I like the most because I can serve my people.

I’m not the most educated of men, but I have strong principles.

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