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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Daily blackouts strain a poor Spanish neighborhood. Is marijuana to blame?


Workers installing new electrical cables in northern Granada, Spain.

By Constant Méheut


On a recent morning, Ángel Ortiz Rodríguez was slumped on a sofa in his apartment in Granada, in southern Spain, a tangle of breathing tubes protruding from his nose. Since Ortiz had a heart attack a few years ago, his life has depended on an electronic breathing machine.


But his neighborhood regularly loses power several times a day, forcing his wife, Rosa Martin Piñedo, to keep an oxygen cylinder as a backup. “We can’t really rely on electricity here,” she said.


Daily blackouts plague the 25,000 inhabitants in this poor district of northern Granada. Food rots in refrigerators and phone batteries die. Medical devices stop working, resulting in major health complications, doctors say.


The blackouts have been a part of life here for more than a decade, but they have grown markedly worse in recent years. And Endesa, Spain’s largest electric company, is blaming a surprising culprit: an increase in illegal marijuana farms. Marijuana growers, the company says, illegally connect to the grid and overwhelm it because of the powerful lights and air conditioning the plants need.


A top manager at Endesa said that in Granada’s northern district alone, about one-third of the volume of electricity stolen last year was linked to illegal farms.


Police attribute the rise in the number of farms partly to drug laws that they say are ambiguous. Spain allows small-scale, private growing and use of the drug, and it has relatively short sentences for those who break the law by running big plantations and engaging in drug trafficking.


Residents acknowledge the number of illegal pot farms. But they say that the harping on marijuana’s role — including in the news media — has given authorities and the electric company the perfect excuse to avoid expensive repairs to a power grid that has been wobbly for years.


The idea of marijuana’s role in the blackouts has taken hold across Spain, where the largest newspaper, El País, ran a headline this year saying, “Marijuana Imposes Its Law on Granada’s Northern District.” Another, from the newspaper El Confidencial, read, “Marijuana Turns Granada Into a Paradise for Illegal Hookups.”


Several residents, frustrated that the focus on marijuana seems to have supplanted their larger concerns, have sued Endesa for failing to provide them with the electricity they need.


“People are dying here because they don’t have light,” said Manuel Martín García, Granada’s ombudsman. “We can’t just point to the marijuana and say, ‘Here’s the culprit.’”


At least a dozen other poor districts across Spain have also been affected by the double scourge of failing electrical grids and illegal marijuana production, according to local rights organizations.


After a two-month blackout in 2020 in a poverty-ravaged neighborhood in Madrid, United Nations human rights experts called on the Spanish government to fix the problem and criticized authorities for blaming “the power outages on illegal marijuana plantations.”


But the debate over electricity shortfalls seems to be especially pronounced in Granada, where Endesa reports that the number of blackouts last year was three times as high as in 2017.


Just a 15-minute drive from the famed Alhambra palace, Granada’s northern district is the city’s poorest, with half of the population living on less than $8,000 a year. It is a collection of cramped quarters where decrepit tangles of electric cables stretch across the streets — a far cry from the fancy, cobbled neighborhoods of the city center.


In the quarter of La Paz, Joséfa Manzano Melgra recounted how she once slept on her living room floor after falling during a blackout while trying to reach the bathroom. At older than 100, she can barely move and uses remote controls for nearly everything, including opening the door of her house.


“If there’s no electricity, they take my life away,” said Manzano, who was seated in an armchair surrounded by extension cords.


Data collected by local residents’ organizations show that power cuts occur on average nearly 100 times a month in Granada’s northern district. Sometimes they last more than 10 hours, as was the case in La Paz in early February.


“People come to my office and say, ‘We can’t take it anymore,’” said Dr. Marta García Caballos, a family physician. She said diabetic patients were sometimes unable to take their insulin because their blood sugar monitors had run out of power.


A study that García co-wrote in 2021 noted that blackouts had led to increased mortality, including because of a higher risk of accidents and poisoning.


Although hardly visible, the presence of indoor marijuana farms is evident in the area. The distinctive smell of cannabis pervades many streets. Several run-down buildings have bricked-up windows and air conditioning units that purr all day, even when it is not that hot outside. (The plant grows best under controlled temperatures and with artificial light.)


Spanish officials say that besides drug laws that they consider lax, rising poverty after the financial crisis of the 2010s has led some to turn to growing marijuana.


“Marijuana drug trafficking extends like a green stain through almost all the municipalities of the province of Granada,” read a recent report by regional authorities that singled out Granada’s northern neighborhood as a production hub. Some 430,000 marijuana plants were seized in Granada in 2021, nearly three times as many as the year before.


José Manuel Revuelta, the head of infrastructure and networks at Endesa, said pot growers were illegally connecting to the grid, sometimes causing transformers to blow fuses up to 15 times a day.


Endesa employees regularly take part in police raids — 18 so far this year — to cut off illegal connections. But a company report notes that the farms can often be up and running again within hours.


For now, residents await the verdict in their court case against Endesa, which they accuse of violating their right to health, which is protected by the European Union’s charter of fundamental rights.


No matter the outcome, some fear it may already be too late to put the focus on the people instead of the pot. At the trial, Marta García Caballos said she gave the judges a presentation on how blackouts harmed people’s health, expecting questions on the subject.


Instead, she said, “they asked me about marijuana.”

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