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Daily Blackouts Strain a Poor Spanish Neighborhood. Is Marijuana to Blame?

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 Mr. 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 a third of the volume of electricity stolen last year was linked to illegal farms. The 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 the authorities and the electric company the perfect excuse to avoid expensive repairs to a power grid that has been wobbly for years. Rosario García, second from left, the head of a local residents’ association, disputed that marijuana production was the main reason for blackouts, saying it was an “easy excuse” not to address more structural issues.Credit...Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

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. More About Cannabis With recreational marijuana becoming legal in several states, cannabis products are becoming more easily available and increasingly varied.

“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 the authorities for blaming “the power outages on illegal marijuana plantations.”


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