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La Abuela: Fernanda de la Figuera is Spain’s grandmother of marijuana

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Spain’s grandmother of marijuana activism is fond of handing out dabs of cannabis concentrate to people interested in learning about her recipe. She instructs them to lick the splotch of THC-laden goo off a fork or a rolling paper. Usually, they do as they are told.

In the presence of the fast talking, 73-year-old Fernanda de la Figuera, one attempts to consume as much of her wisdom as possible. If that includes oral intake of her homemade weed products — and it often does, as she makes her own tinctures, concentrates, and edibles — so be it.

This direct but loving approach might explain how she’s come to make such an impact on Spain’s cannabis movement.

De la Figuera lives on a farm in a small Andalusia town outside Malaga. She credits her robust health to regular marijuana consumption. She is also on the forefront of cannabis activism in Spain, where she heads various advocacy groups and runs her own weed club.

She started using marijuana in Barcelona in the late 1960s, when rumbles from California’s hippie scene were first starting to hit Europe. Not that the Spanish needed the Haight Ashbury to turn on. Cannabis had been present in Spanish culture for centuries, thanks to North African neighbors, traveling military troops — one of the first times de la Figuera saw a joint was in the hands of her conservative father’s military colleague — the common use of hemp in manufacturing, and mainstream pharmacies that only stopped selling marijuana tinctures in the 20th century.

Over 50 years after her first puff, de la Figuera is uniquely placed to make a difference.

As society’s traditional caretakers, older women are perfect advocates for marijuana’s health benefits — think of the effect San Francisco’s “Brownie” Mary Rathbun had on cannabis’s public image.

And middle-aged women were instrumental in passing the ballot initiatives that legalized marijuana in Washington and Colorado, according to a recent study from the Global Drug Policy Observatory.

“I think people really listen to senior women because we’ve been working with this stuff for years,” she says. “We just know about marijuana, and if there were problems with it, we’d know about them as well.”

A 1995 raid of her home marijuana farm led to de la Figuera making history. Spanish law permits cultivation for personal use, but she was the first to test this theory out in court — and win a pardon. This earned her the title of Spain’s first legal cannabis farmer.

She founded Malaga’s cannabis studies organization (ARSECA, for Asociación Ramón Santos de Estudios del Cannabis de Andalucía) and a cannabis club for women she named Mothers for Marijuana (Marias Para Maria.)

In 2012, she became the first from her country — not to mention the first female — to be honored with a Cannabis Culture Award from Amsterdam’s Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum.

None of these distinctions have kept her entirely out of trouble with the law.

With over 200 members, Marias Para Maria is run by women and is committed to providing females with safe and easy access to cannabis. De la Figuera put the focus on women, she says, because they are often the ones taking care of society’s sick. Safe access to cannabis is more important for women, since buying black market on the street may be more dangerous for them than for their male counterparts.

Men are allowed to be members of the Marias, but de la Figuera insists that women take priority over the guys. “The people in charge of the club are absolutely feminists, convinced that we must change society,” she says. “Not to mention, the marijuana plant is female. Women have a certain relationship with the plant in that way.”

Marias Para Maria provides informal cultivation trainings and talks on cannabis legislation for members — not to mention a place for women to come together to smoke and talk about weed. That space to be comrades is important, de la Figuera says: “The face of marijuana activism has always been very male in Spain.”

Cannabis clubs occupy a place of dubious legality in Spain, despite the obvious fact that not all those who use cannabis are capable of growing their own crop. In 2010, soon after she received a spate of negative press from a conservative journalist, and again in the fall of last year, de la Figuera’s farm was raided by police. The crop intended for Marias Para Maria members was confiscated.

But de la Figuera shows no sign of changing her course. She’s committed to being as transparent as she can safely be about her farm’s operations, speaking openly with reporters and neighbors in her small Andalusia town.

“I always say that each person has to find their own way to live,” de la Figuera says. “And for me, when I found marijuana, that was it. Despite all my legal problems, it’s given me a lot of pleasure in my life, that marijuana.”