It was a cloudy morning in Vienna, stoners, metal heads, vegans, punks, mothers, fathers, children, handicapped, old, young, foreign and native had gathered outside the Westbahnhof on May 2nd 2015. An insane collection of diverse people came together to protest the decades old prohibition of cannabis this month with Hans Söllner and band giving a free performance at the beginning. The march was part of a Global Cannabis March with millions of people from over 250 cities taking part. For these people Grass is normal. It is drinking a coffee, having a beer or taking vitamins in the morning. For more still it is more similar to going to church, praying five times a day or reflecting and meditating on one’s own life.
Unfortunately, the Hanf Wandertags organized in Vienna over the past few years has yet to receive recognition in the form of new public policy from political representatives. The curious case of cannabis has for years remained underground. Now it is slowly but surely coming out and into the light. Grow shops, activists, artists and many more passed out fliers and information about the medicinal benefits of the plant. The sun then finally came out as those participating in the march waved flags and danced along to DJ trucks on their way to Heldenplatz. Many even smoked while hiking through the Vienna streets with police just meters away. Lucky the police did not want to turn a peaceful demonstration into a hash filled riot.
Some local grow shops passed out free smoking supplies and small cannabis plants (stecklinge). Lawyers also passed out advertisements in the form of smoking supplies with their names and information written on them. Organizations supplied leaflets, showing that the march isn’t just about encouraging a new industry, it is about education too.
As the crowd moved through the city many people came out of storefronts and windows to take pictures and see what all the commotion was about, some even danced along and cheered. The protest had an over all positive atmosphere. Although none of the major political parties dared to join or show support the Austrian Greens, KPÖ, PiratenPartei und Plattform der Unabhängigen made an appearance. At the end of the day the question is; what does the Austrian government really fear about legalizing Cannabis? There seem to be a lot of misconceptions surrounding the substance.
While humans have used Cannabis for centuries it was only very recently that it has been prohibited. The tide certainly turned for legal cannabis advocates with the allowance for medicinal use of the substance. When people started to realize that the plant had medicinal qualities suddenly everything that had been said about it the past came into question. Synthetic medicinal Marijuana is sold regularly in Austria with a physician’s prescription. Even seeds and stecklinge can be purchased in shops. However, the sale of THC is still strictly prohibited.
Although research over the years has been severely blocked we still know quite a lot about it. Cannabis contains psychotic and anti-psychotic compounds, THC and CBD. They work to subtly change the effects and balance each other out. The reason cannabis works so well is because of the similarities it shares with our own natural neurotransmitters. The dosage is also an important factor to consider. All drugs influence maximally at small dosages, while too much can produce an opposite effect. Without this information widely and easily available to the public, how can anyone be expected to use any substance responsibly or as a medicine?
In 1970 Richard Nixon ratified the Controlled Substances Act in the United States. Many of America’s allies at the time followed this strategy of prohibition despite contradictory evidence. Nixon stood politically to the right and this put him in direct opposition to certain grass roots movements that were developing at the time. The prohibition of cannabis was a cold and politically calculated move that actually had less to do with the plant and more to do with who was associated with it. This included pacifists against the Vietnam War, people against nuclear proliferation, people against racial and sexual discrimination and censorship. The rest of the world, including Western Europe, simply had to play along with the Cold War game.
The Cold War eventually ended and the wall came down. Now many world leaders are speaking out against the classification of Cannabis as a dangerous drug. Several world leaders gathered this September with the Global Commission on Drug Policy to announce a new approach called Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. They call for a move toward public health and social investment and away from criminalization. This comes with the understanding that to actually stop addiction abusers need treatment not punishment. Death and prison sentences for minor drug abuse in this perspective are essentially human rights violations. The idea now is that drugs become more dangerous when they are illegal. The government, not criminals, should control drugs with a more sophisticated regulation system. This can reduce the power that black market organizations have. The solution calls for regulation and responsible institutions. While many claim this is an unrealistic plan the Commission maintains that an evidence and fact based policy is feasible and necessary.
The important part in attempting to legalize this drug is moderation and information. We need to explain to teens that both cannabis and alcohol can harm the brain during development. We also need to make sure companies do not take advantage of legalization and try to market cannabis to children. It should be legal for any citizen to grow their own so that patients who use cannabis will not be reliant upon a firm or distributer. A black market for cannabis and many other substances will always exist. After years of failed prohibition, providing the public with real information on substances and not propaganda is a better solution.
There have been many regions around the world that have legalized Cannabis and they have yet to see negative results. In Switzerland possession of less than 10 grams has been decriminalized. Most German Bundesländer from Berlin down to Bayern also allow for possession of small amounts without jail time. The Czech Republic has recently allowed for limited medical marijuana. In Spain growing for personal use has been legalized, while possession in public and sale are still illegal. Spain also has around 500 Cannabis Clubs where one must be a member to smoke, 200 of these clubs are in Barcelona. The Netherlands is the most liberal with their cannabis laws. Coffee shops are legal to smoke in but not legal to sell from, though this is not strongly enforced. These are just examples from Europe. Many States in the USA have adopted medicinal marijuana and several states and cities have legalized possession and sale. In South America many states are pushing for legalization of cannabis to lessen the revenue of organized gangs. Uruguay has gone so far as to legalize cannabis nationwide. Austria can learn a lot from these countries and maybe even look to them as models for the future of legal Cannabis.
In Austria it is still illegal and can possibly result in jail time for possession and sharing, though consumption is actually legal. It is now time for the country to push for legalization and have a nationwide conversation on how this will be done. What kind of Cannabis policy could be acceptable? The Czech model, with decriminalization and medicinal access for patients who could use a healthier and cheaper alternative to prescription drugs that can be more dangerous, could be an option. Or perhaps Austria might want to increase tourism through legalization; instead of Dutch coffee shops there could be Cannabis Jägerhutte. Or if a more secure method of access is wanted Cannabis Social clubs may be the answer. In the end we may see an entirely new Austrian model for legalization. Needless to say the conversation needs to come out into the main stream. While some political parties have cautiously voiced the need for reform it is nowhere near enough. It is time to stop whispering and start talking.