Austria is home to somewhat relaxed but complicated cannabis laws. The local authorities allow you to buy seeds and seedlings, but cannabis sale and supply are punished harshly in Austria.
As a tourist, you might be wondering if you’re allowed to smoke a recreational spliff while waiting for your Wiener Schnitzel to be ready. So, is cannabis legal in Austria?
Read on to find out.
The Austrian approach to drug use
Austria adopted its current Addiction Prevention Strategy in 2016, and, together with the Narcotic Substances Act, it sets out the goals, frameworks and principles behind the country’s drug policy. Austria views addiction as a disease, not a crime. As a result, Austrian drug laws support the principle of treatment over punishment, and lawbreakers are encouraged to seek help instead of going to prison.
Austrian drug laws distinguish between two types of offenders — criminal offenders who are trafficking the drugs for profit and endanger public safety and people with drug-related health problems. The law lays out several criteria that differentiate between the two, the most relevant being the type and quantity of drugs involved. The law grants cannabis and hallucinogenic mushrooms special provisions.
Since Austrian lawmakers consider addiction a disease, not a crime, drug use is not considered an offence. The penalty for drug possession for personal use varies according to the type and quantity of drugs, but it usually consists of a fine or a short prison sentence of up to six months. The law defines quantity thresholds for every type of drug, making a clear distinction between personal possession and possession with intent to supply.
The framework adopted in 2016 offers drug users alternatives to punishment. The police sometimes send offenders directly to health authorities, and therapy can be an alternative to imprisonment even for drug users who committed serious offences but are willing to undergo addiction treatment.
Recreational cannabis laws in Austria
Recreational cannabis is not legal in Austria, but cannabis has been more or less decriminalised for personal use. The Austrian authorities no longer prosecute the possession of small quantities of cannabis for personal use. And here’s the thing, anything below 20 grams of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is considered a small quantity of cannabis.
But there’s more to the Austrian cannabis laws — instead of prosecuting offenders, the police sends a report to the district administrative authority, which serves as a health authority.
The health authority examines the case and recommends certain therapeutic measures that the offender should follow. Each of these cases also reaches the prosecutor’s office, but the prosecutor does not open an investigation if the offender cooperates with the health authority.
So, personal use of cannabis is effectively decriminalised, but you could still be sanctioned if you don’t respect the health authority’s recommendations.
Cannabis growing is sort of legal in Austria
Back in 2008, Austria updated its Narcotic Substances Act to make it fit better with EU legislation. The updated version allows Austrians to grow cannabis in order to extract its active substances for medicinal preparations. The Act also allows Austrians to grow cannabis at home as long as their plants contain less than 0.3 percent THC.
Simply put, the 2008 Act allows Austrian citizens to grow most cannabis plants until they flower, which is when their THC content increases dramatically. It’s technically possible to grow as many cannabis plants as you want, as long as they don’t flower and you can prove you have no intention of producing psychoactive substances from them.
This technicality allows growers to sell seeds and seedlings online and in brick and mortar shops. Some people estimate that Austrian cannabis growers sell about 300,000 seedlings each month.
But this loophole in the Austrian cannabis law was also used by large scale cannabis growers as a ‘get out of jail free card’ on several occasions. Some of them managed to argue that, since their crops had yet to flower, they weren’t growing it with the intent to sell it on the black market. However, others made the same argument and faced criminal charges because Austrian law treats cannabis sale and supply harshly.
Cannabis sale and supply charges attract harsh prison sentences
Austrian law sees cannabis trafficking as a serious offence. If an individual is caught trafficking large quantities of cannabis, which, by law, is defined as being anything over 15 times the legal threshold, there are serious consequences to face:
- A cannabis possession charge, which can result in a prison sentence of up to three years.
- A cannabis import sentence, which can result in a prison sentence of up to five years.
- A drug trafficking charge, which can result in a prison sentence of one to 10 years, 10 to 20 years, or 10 to life, depending on the aggravating circumstances. Being part of a gang, having previous drug convictions, endangering the lives of others (especially minors) and trafficking large quantities of cannabis are considered serious aggravating circumstances by Austrian law.
Is medical marijuana legal in Austria?
The 2008 Narcotic Substances Act made cultivating cannabis for medical and scientific purposes legal. Medical marijuana cultivation is controlled by the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security (AGES). The AGES is the only entity allowed to grow medical cannabis in Austria, and it can pass its crops to authorised customers — usually pharmaceutical companies.
But here’s the thing, even though there is an entity allowed to grow cannabis, Austrian doctors can only prescribe synthetic cannabis medicines, such as Dronabinol, Nabilone and Sativex. They usually prescribe cannabis for chronic pain, severe depression that doesn’t respond to antidepressants, multiple sclerosis, cancer, side effects of chemotherapy, epilepsy, glaucoma and Tourette syndrome.
There are only a few doctors who prescribe cannabis medication, and they usually prescribe Dronabinol because it’s the cheapest option. And, even then, the costs of getting cannabis medicine in Austria are steep.
For example, 250 mg of Dorabinol cost around 150 euros in Austria, while 200 mg of THC-rich medical cannabis flowers cost about 30 euros in neighbouring Germany. Prescribed cannabis treatments can be covered by health insurance companies, but that’s not always the case.
Austrian advocacy groups demand better access to cannabis treatments for patients, but that’s not likely to happen in the near future. The state authorities want more scientific proof before allowing patients to use cannabis flower as treatment.
Now, that might seem like a sound approach, but the authorities are not making any efforts to support cannabis research. In fact, cannabis research is basically nonexistent in Austria.
Scientists are not allowed to conduct human cannabis studies in the country; they can only carry out studies on mice and isolated cells. Further, the authorities do not consider those types of studies relevant to this debate, so things reached a stalemate for the moment.
Is CBD legal in Austria?
Cannabidiol (CBD) was legal in Austria until 2018, if the product contained less than 0.3 percent THC. However, a 2019 decree classified CBD as a novel food in line with EU regulations and banned foods and cosmetics containing CBD from the market.
But the decree’s expression created a legal loophole, and cannabis entrepreneurs are using it as best they can. Since they can’t sell products that are classified as foods or cosmetics, most of them started selling ‘aromatherapy’ products containing CBD. As a result, you can still find CBD products in Austria.
However, one of the problems with this type of legal loophole is that it basically eliminates the possibility of product control. Since the products are not supposed to be ingested or applied to the skin, they are not tested by the AGES.
As a result, the Austrian CBD market is now open to opportunists who want to line their pockets without spending too much money. And one of the easiest ways to do that is claiming that you’re selling CBD-infused aromatherapy products when you’re really selling perfumed water with fancy labels.
You’re not breaking the law when you do this because you’re selling aromatherapy products, and the clients have a difficult time proving you’re tricking people. This is how scammers win, and consumers suffer.
The future of cannabis in Austria
Austria’s current drug laws focus on rehabilitation as opposed to punishment, so they aim to help drug users, which is a healthy, positive attitude toward drug use and misuse. The Austrian authorities are currently reluctant to approve medical marijuana flower as a treatment option, so they’re surely not planning to legalise recreational cannabis any time soon.
But the authorities might change their minds if Germany expands its medical cannabis program. This might provide Austrian lawmakers with the proof they need to support more robust cannabis legislation, and it might raise the issue of cannabis legalisation in Austria.