Cannabis: A burning issue for Austria’s Neos

Cannabis: A burning issue for Austria's Neos
Photo: APA/epa
Austria’s centrist Neos party has sparked controversy by speaking out in favour of legalizing cannabis.

The conservative People’s Party, Freedom Party and Team Stronach are all opposed to legalizing cannabis.

While drug addiction experts in Austria don’t support the Neo’s call for legalization they do say that a total ban on cannabis is not helpful.

Addiction expert Christoph Lagemann from the Institute for Drug Prevention in Linz told the state broadcaster ORF that the key is to strike a balance between prohibition and legalization, and to ensure that young people are protected.

Neos chairman Matthias Strolz is known for his alternative lifestyle which includes practising yoga and fasting alone for days in the Vienna Woods to gain energy. He has spoken out in favour of selling cannabis over the counter in pharmacies and allowing people to grow their own plants for personal consumption.

He said that half a million people who regularly use cannabis in Austria risk having a criminal record and that legalization would take cannabis out of the hands of dealers and criminal gangs. He added that the goal of legalizing cannabis in Austria would be primarily to reduce drug abuse. He has admitted to smoking cannabis “many years ago, occasionally and not regularly”.

The youth branch of the Neos, the Jungen Neos, are in favour legalizing all drugs, something Strolz has dismissed as unrealistic.

Strolz's Neos party is a centrist, pro-European Union movement. Photo: APA/Hochmuth

Lagemann warns that those who consume cannabis regularly for recreational purposes do risk health problems. Scientific studies have linked smoking cannabis with tuberculosis, acute bronchitis and lung cancer. Some studies have also suggested cannabis increases the chances of developing mental health problems such as schizophrenia.

However, Lagemann said that he didn’t consider cannabis to be a ‘gateway’ drug as most consumers tend to stick to using cannabis

Legalization could have an economic benefit. According to a report from GreenWave Advisors, a research and advisory firm that serves the emerging marijuana industry in the US, if all 50 US states and the federal government legalized cannabis, combined sales for both medical and retail marijuana could balloon to $35 billion a year by 2020. Currently recreational use of marijuana is legal in Washington State and Colorado.

In Austria, possession and cultivation of marijuana is illegal and punishable by jail sentences of up to ten years.

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