Austria has relatively liberal drug laws, with the general approach being to ignore personal use and focus exclusively on sale, production and trafficking. This approach has been in place in Austria for decades, although there have been several changes prior to the current legislation, implemented in 2008.
Legal aspects concerning consumption, possession and cultivation of cannabis
Cannabis possession & consumption
Austria’s criminal code has differentiated between personal use and commercial distribution of drugs since 1971, with an emphasis on prioritizing treatment over criminalization of users. In 1980, the harm-reduction over criminalization principle was formally established as the basis for the drug law in Austria.
Prior to 2008, a system of thresholds was in place to determine whether cases would be classed as personal use or distribution. For cannabis, this legal limit was set at up to 2g of pure THC (at 20% THC levels, that equates to 10g of cannabis).
In January 2008, the Austrian drug laws were overhauled and new legislation put in place that no longer took into account the quantity of drugs in question, and assessed the evidence for possession or distribution via alternative means. Thus, any quantity could then be argued as being for personal use, as long as no evidence of dealing was present.
While this marked a huge step forward in terms of personal freedom, the laws regarding distribution were tightened, so that even sharing a joint with friends could conceivably be classed as supply.
However, as yet there is no evidence that police are cracking down on such minor infarctions. In fact, the debate on full legalization of cannabis is currently intensifying, with high-level support from several major political parties.
Sale of cannabis
Although the 2008 amendment made it possible to argue personal use even for large quantities, penalties for those found to be distributing illegal drugs were tightened. The threshold system is also still in operation for distribution offences, with small quantities subject to far lighter penalties than large; large or “serious” quantities are defined as anything above 20g of pure THC.
If individuals are found in possession of drugs and cannot argue that the drugs were for personal use, the sentence is set at up to six months in prison or a fine. In practice, custodial sentences are usually suspended, or alternative sentences such as therapy or community service issued.
However, in the presence of aggravating factors—such as involvement of minors or proven intent to distribute cannabis commercially—the penalty is up to three years’ imprisonment. For larger amounts (over 15 times the threshold quantity), the standard penalty is 2-3 years’ imprisonment, with extra time imposed for aggravating offences.
For import or production, a custodial sentence of up to 5 years is typical. For serious crimes with aggravating factors such as previous convictions, membership or leadership of a criminal organization, or extremely large quantities, 10–20 years is the typical sentence. In the most serious cases, a whole-life custodial sentence may be applied, but there is no record of this ever occurring for cannabis-related offences.
Cultivation of cannabis
Since the 2008 change in law removed the concept of large and small quantities as a means of differentiating between personal use and distribution, it has been effectively legal to cultivate an unlimited number of plants in Austria, provided that they are not in the flowering stage and it can be shown that there was no intention to process and sell psychoactive cannabis. Several growers found in possession of hundreds of plants have successfully argued thus, although those who have been unable to convince the courts have been subject to severe penalties.
There have also been several cases of growers found in possession of relatively large quantities (two kilograms in one case, and ten kilograms in another) of finished and harvested cannabis, who have been found to be in possession for personal use rather than for purposes of distribution. Absence of money, digital scales and other items associated with dealing is highly advantageous in such instances.
Cannabis seeds and equipment
Although it is illegal to grow cannabis with the intention of producing THC, it is legal to purchase cannabis seeds and seedlings in Austria. In fact, the ambiguous wording of the law effectively means that plants are legal at all points up to flowering, as prior to that THC levels are unlikely to be above the legal limit of 0.3%, if indeed they are discernible at all. Thus, it is common to see large mother plants and abundant seedlings at Austrian hemp and cannabis trade shows; clones and seedlings are often sold “for aromatherapy purposes”.
Outlets specializing in the sale of cannabis grow equipment are generally tolerated by the authorities, although if instances of cultivation can be associated with a grow shop, the proprietor may be considered liable for the offence along with the actual perpetrators. In Vienna alone, there are now more than twenty grow shops supplying equipment directly to the customer.
Medicinal cannabis in Austria
In July 2008, the Austrian parliament passed a bill permitting the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes. However, the bill gave the exclusive right to grow cannabis to a single government department under control of the Health Ministry. Domestic cultivation of medical cannabis is therefore still illegal, although there have been several acquittals of individuals who have successfully argued that their cultivation was for personal medical use.
Despite the 2008 law, Austria has not yet made government-grown cannabis available to its medical cannabis patients. However, the importation and sale of synthetic cannabis preparations such as dronabinol and Sativex is permitted to individuals in possession of a valid prescription from a licensed physician. Dronabinol is mostly imported from Germany, and is the most commonly prescribed drug, due to its relatively lost cost.
Industrial hemp in Austria
Austria has a long history of hemp cultivation stretching back thousands of years. Although hemp cultivation was never banned outright, interest in farming it declined as global attitudes shifted, and in around 1958 the industry died out entirely. Interest picked up again in the early 1990s, and in 1995, the first modern crop was grown in the village of Kautzen, Lower Austria. Currently, in line with EU regulations, it is legal to grow hemp varieties containing a maximum of 0.3% THC, for fibre, oil, and all other non-psychoactive uses.
Now, the hemp industry in Austria is significant, and there are efforts to revive the traditions of the past—such as in the village of Hanfthal (whose name literally translates to “Hemp Valley”), which now grows around 70 hectares of hemp, and has established a museum and information centre explaining the 900-year-old hemp-growing traditions that gave the village its name.
Austria mainly produces hemp fibre for textiles and construction materials, and produces smaller quantities of oilseed crops. Austria has strong recent history of contributions to hemp technology: for example, the Hempstone-Zelfo process, whereby ground hemp fibres are mixed with water to produce a solid, dense composite plastic that can be highly polished. Hempstone has been used to produce musical instruments, furniture, and various other items.
Austria’s political parties & cannabis
The SPÖ is a centre-left party with a generally progressive drug policy. This large and influential party currently comprises the larger partner in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party, and party leader Werner Faymann is the current Chancellor of Austria. Currently, the SPÖ is spearheading a campaign to legalize cannabis entirely.
The right-leaning ÖVP has a hostile attitude towards the legalization of cannabis, preferring instead to espouse the harm-reduction principle along with punitive penalties. Justice minister Wolfgang Brandstetter recently went on record as stating that he rejected the concept of cannabis legalization.
The left-wing Die Grünen party is another vociferous advocate of cannabis legalization, and last year announced a campaign to push for full legalization. Party spokesman Harald Terpe stated, “Until now the debate has been based on few hard facts and more vague feelings”. The Greens are pushing for a tightly-controlled system of small-scale retail sales of cannabis, but would prohibit mail-order and vending machine sales and would limit importation.
The right-wing, Eurosceptic party Team Stronach is opposed to the legalization of cannabis in any form.
Austria’s newest political party, the NEOs have recently stated their support for the legalization of cannabis. At first, party chairman Matthias Strolz expressed surprise that his party voted in support of cannabis legalization, but shortly afterward stated his own full support.