In this interview with David Madilyan, president of the private cannabis association HQ Barcelona, we get insight into the personal life of one of the city’s most well-respected figures in the cannabis industry.
You’re a Russian living in Barcelona. How long have you been here, and what brought you here in the first place?
16 Years; I came here in 2000. In ‘99 I’d been living for about a year as a student in New York. I studied international law, first in Moscow and then I decided to go to New York. Part of that decision was the influence of hip-hop on my life. I loved New York and I still love New York, but it wasn’t really my kind of place, not enough sun. So, I was just looking for a cool place and I luckily found Barcelona. I’m Russian, but I have Armenian blood, so I was thinking I would fit in here, you know, as I’m a little dark. (Laughs) And I still love it; I never get tired of it.
But you didn’t speak Spanish at the time?
How many languages do you speak now?
Russian, of course, then English, Spanish, some French and I understand Armenian also.
When did you first become involved with cannabis? How did you come up with the idea to open a private cannabis club in Barcelona?
Well, I’ve been smoking most of my life. I spent a lot of time working managing beach clubs and in the nightlife entertainment sector; working with DJs, organizing events and artists. But I was really tired of nightlife. So I was talking to my friends about how cool it would be to have, like, a day club, but a place that really felt like home. They we’re all saying “Yes let’s do it! But where? How?” And then one day I heard about the loophole created in Spain, and the beginning of these cannabis associations. So I decided to make a move. But I didn’t want to open a coffeeshop; something that was open to everybody. The social club system really appealed to me, and the social aspect is still really important at HQ.
What kinds of social activities do you have?
Oh man, all kinds. Live music, DJs, sports competitions; like this weekend we’re having the HQ basketball tournament, expositions, all kinds of things. And it’s a real association. We really care about the privacy of our members and transparency with them. Every couple of months we have an assembly to discuss what’s going on with the club and they can ask to look in our books if they have questions. We analyze our products so the members have a guarantee of what they’re getting. This is a much better way of managing everything than an open coffeeshop market. So HQ, I’ve got the beanie here, it doesn’t really stand for ‘headquarters’ or ‘high-quality’, although it’s those things too, but the real name is ‘Hempquarters’.
What is the current state of cannabis in Russia and how do you see the future there?
It’s a big taboo. Drug policy in Russia is very severe; you can literally get two years of prison if they catch you with a joint, or with a gram of heroin, or whatever. They don’t differentiate, and even just a small amount can see you facing big problems. But it’s also true there’s a big drug use problem in Russia. I was reading an article about the heroin boom recently, and it’s happening both in the US and Russia. And it’s interesting how it’s flooding the market because I really do think that in times of unrest, there is a motive to see people numbed in some way. But with Russian policy on cannabis, I think they’re very stubborn. The rest of world will have legalized and Russia will still be against it. It’s a long way off.
Do you think Vladimir Putin has ever smoked weed?
(Laughs) No. This guy is super anti-alcohol and drugs, but maybe it would be better if he blazed sometimes. I saw a mural on a graffiti wall of Putin giving a shotgun to Trump, you know, with a joint. That would make the world a better place.
How do you see the election of Donald Trump affecting the cannabis industry?
Well we can’t really avoid talking about him, can we? I think the main thing to focus on is that we saw 4 states pass recreational and even more pass medical marijuana laws in this same election. So I think the popular opinion is clear; it wouldn’t make sense for Trump to fight it. And for Europe, the advances made in the US can only help. Other countries still look over their shoulder at what the US does in this way. European countries don’t want to be the last in line, especially when other countries are making money.
How do you see the future of cannabis clubs in Catalonia and across Spain?
Well, we’re already seeing it. Here in Spain, the government, even the central government, is becoming more and more tolerant of associations. Their attitudes are much less severe than when parts of Spain first started to reform. I mean, really, the central government could close us at any time if they wanted, but they don’t.
Has HQ ever experienced any problems with the authorities?
Not problems, no. We have inspections sometimes. There’s like a group of police specially trained for this. The last time they came they wanted to look at everything: the building, the electrics, the ventilation, even up on the roof! But it’s not so different from inspecting any kind of business, really. Our experience with them was very polite and they had nothing bad to say in their report. They were impressed with how professional we were.
So you take the inspections pretty seriously?
Yeah, of course. I want everything to be as legal as it can be: paying all our taxes, making sure all our staff are legal and have social security, insuring everything, investing in the best air filtering system possible. If we are given certain freedoms, we should try our best to respect the rules.
Which law actually protects the clubs’ right to exist?
Constitutional law. The ‘right to associate’ is in the Spanish constitution. When it became legal to grow and smoke for personal use, we saw people start to set up members’ associations to share and smoke together. As long as people aren’t breaking the law or hurting anyone, they can form any kind of group in Spain. But to have a cannabis industry is only tolerated, really, not legal. There isn’t a complete system; it’s all shades of gray.
Personal preference; Sativa or Indica?
For a few years now, with some rare exceptions, I pretty much only smoke bubble hash and rosin. I’m really all about the flavor of what I smoke. I think many people will agree that flavor is probably the most important element to weed, you know, it’s what you go for. For me, flower loses its taste after a few hits and starts to taste toasted or burnt. I just can’t get the essence of the flavor in the same way as I do with bubble hash or rosin. I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me on that, though.
How did HQ get so deeply involved in extracts?
Firstly because I’m a hash-lover. There is a long tradition of hash-smoking here in Spain. It was always very open and tolerated, even before 2000. I always want to have, for myself and my members, really good quality hash. A while ago, there was some hype about a new ‘rosin’ technique; making solvent-less extractions with heat and pressure. So after reading a couple articles I decided to try it. I just bought a T-shirt press (what they use to press graphics onto shirts) and experimented. And then a couple years ago I first entered my rosin in a cup and won. Now we always enter cups with our rosin, and we’ve won about 6.
Where do you see the cannabis industry going in terms of flower versus extracts – do you think that the market for extracts will meet or exceed the market for flower?
I don’t think so. It’s not even me, I mean, the numbers don’t lie. People want to smoke high-quality bud. Of course you see an increase in people using extractions, but there’s always a peak when something new comes out, BHO, rosin; we’ve seen a few now. When people are fond of something, they will always look for something special. But many more are happy to stick with their traditional techniques.
You’ve got a joint there- do you roll with tobacco?
Yes, I usually roll with tobacco. It’s just a delivery system, especially when you’re smoking bubble hash. I’ve tried different types of replacement mixes and stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s never the same. I always go back to tobacco, even though I don’t want to. But I don’t roll joints all the time; just as often I will dab rosin from an oil rig. I think eventually I can be happy with just this. It’s the goal, anyways.
How do you feel about vaporizing?
To be honest, I don’t like to vape. I like to smoke. I’ve always smoked and so maybe that’s part of the association, but I know a lot of people say the same.
Do you use cannabis for medical purposes?
Well, not for any kind of condition, but sometimes. Like, for example, I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and grappling. So, as you can imagine, I always have some kind of ache or pain. So for this kind of thing I will sometimes use some kind of cannabis salve or oil. But definitely not for something like depression or anxiety. If I feel depressed, I practice Jiu Jitsu.
Are you ranked in Jiu Jitsu?
I’m a blue belt, third degree.
Do you think cannabis helps to improve your athletic performance?
It helps after, to relax. With Jiu Jitsu, I never smoke before. It’s not really that kind of sport, where you can focus on one thing, like running. It’s not about being relaxed, it’s about being sharp. Mental agility is really important, and when you smoke your state of mind is different. With basketball—I can smoke before basketball. I’ve been playing street ball all my life and I love it, but it’s different. It’s just for fun.
Tell me about your family.
Well, I’m married and my wife is also Russian, but we live here. They rest of my family is back in Moscow. No kids currently, but I do want kids.
How would you raise kids in regards to cannabis?
Well, I wouldn’t approach it with a young kid. I don’t want to smoke in the house or in front of them, it’s still not a great habit to model. Let’s be honest, burning and smoking anything isn’t good for your health. But when they’re old enough, I would be honest; tell them the bad sides and the good sides and try to keep it neutral. I know from my own experience that if they try it, they are either going to have an affinity for it or not, and they will have to make their own decisions from there.
Do your family support your career in the cannabis industry?
My family back in Moscow? They know what I do, and many of them have seen the club. Actually, my dad—my dad is like an Armenian Robert DeNiro, you know, but he can’t fly. So this year he is going to drive here from Moscow and see the place for the first time. And recently, one of my dad’s oldest, best friends was in town and came to visit the club. And when he was here he said to me “Wow. Really. Your dad is gonna be so proud of you.” I said, “Really?” He was like, “Yeah, I mean look at yourself.” That meant a lot.
The rest of the family, my mother and everyone have been here and seen it. I think they were pretty impressed. They could see everything we do and that it’s not just about weed. It’s not like my mother is thrilled that I’m working in cannabis, but she is happy that I’m doing something I love rather than wasting my life being miserable in an office or something. And I really love this place; I’m here all the time, you can ask anybody.
I have a funny story. We have this old family friend, living in New York. I always knew he was a smoker. And he was told about my coffeeshop, so I got a call from him one day. He asked me how the coffeeshop is going, I told him good. He starts asking about our material, I said it’s good. He asks who are my providers. I said, ’Excuse me?’ He says, ‘Yeah, your providers. What are their names?’ I was like ‘What are you crazy? I can’t tell you that.’ He says ‘Well you know I have a coffeeshop in Columbia with my son’ I was like ‘Really? I didn’t know they had coffeeshops in Columbia.’ He says, ‘Yeah. We’ve got the best coffeeshop in Columbia. I’m gonna bring you the best stuff.’ I was thinking at this point maybe I should end this conversation. But he kept pushing me for providers’ names, and where we grow. I said ‘Spain, of course.’ He says ‘How are you growing coffee in Spain?’ I say ‘What? No, it’s weed.’ He says ‘Wait, I thought you had a coffeeshop, like, with coffee.’ The guy wanted to supply me. (Laughs)
Do you have an idol or someone you admire in the cannabis industry?
Well of course I have a lot of friends in this industry. I could name so many people that I really like what they do and their passion and skill for what they do. I would love to have Frenchy Cannoli visit. Great, famous hash maker. We’ve talked before, and we’re gonna make it happen at some point. House of the Great Gardener, Bubbleman, Cervantes; these guys are legends. In terms of like an ‘idol’, though, I would have to name people like Bob Marley, Snoop Dogg, even Wiz Khalifa. Not because I like them as artists necessarily, but these are the people that have been shouting about this for years, blazing everywhere, showing everyone how normal it is. They’ve made such a big impact for our community, so we should admire them for that.
So what do you see as the future for cannabis overall?
Here’s what I see: the public are dropping the antiquated ideas from the drug war, especially the idea that weed is as or more dangerous than alcohol, because we know now that’s not true. People die from alcohol, but the statistics speak for themselves on marijuana deaths. So people are becoming more educated. With more access, the pot-smoking population are growing in numbers. We see it at HQ; you get everyone in here from the bank manager to the pizza delivery guy. It’s a great equalizer, seeing all those people sitting around the same table passing a joint. We are only gonna see more acceptance and normalization of cannabis.
Before I said the government could shut the clubs down by force, but really they can’t. The willpower of the people is so much stronger than theirs. It falls into the human rights category at this point, the idea that people should be free to do what they want with their own bodies. I think now popular opinion on cannabis in Spain is one of the most positive in Europe. So it’s only going to grow from here.