I recently took a quick trip to Vienna, the stunningly beautiful capital city of the central European nation of Austria. During my time there, I had the privilege of hanging out with the team from Hemp Embassy Vienna. The Embassy is an intriguing and original idea, albeit clearly influenced by existing concepts such as the Cannabis College and the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum in Amsterdam. The Embassy has a wonderful showroom, beautifully kitted out with hexagonal display cases, each with an individual cannabis plant thriving inside. Information screens attached to the cases provide detail about the featured strain, its growth characteristics, and the breeder that created it.
In addition to the showroom, the Embassy has a neat little shop selling high-quality hemp products, staffed by a friendly, enthusiastic team who will happily guide you around the plants and explain anything you’d like to know. Head honcho (or should that be Chief Diplomat?) at the Hemp Embassy is Gregor Fritz, a warm and affable man who clearly maintains great relationships with his staff. On first impression, the Embassy is wonderful, but so far, not massively different from many other hemp shops and museums in Europe. But it soon becomes apparent that there’s another service provided via the Embassy—one which certainly isn’t available in Amsterdam, or in most other European countries for that matter.
In a handful of outlets in Vienna and elsewhere in Austria, it’s actually possible to purchase live, growing cannabis seedlings and clones. Here at the Embassy, a menu discreetly laid out on the counter lists the varieties available in seedling and clone form. You can’t actually buy them at this location, but you don’t have to go far—a short drive or bus ride will get you to the Embassy’s sister company, Plant City, where you can fulfill your order whether it be small or industrial-sized. The Hemp Embassy and Plant City are both offshoots from parent company Bushplanet, which has been in the game since the mid-1990s. In fact, Bushplanet was the first Austrian company to begin producing cannabis clones back in 1998.
Austrian law does not explicitly prohibit the sale of cannabis seedlings or clones, while many other European countries impose restrictions on possession or cultivation of any living cannabis plant. Of course, all EU member states allow cultivation of industrial hemp, but that usually requires a license—and licensed hemp growers must stick to growing any of the 64 EU-registered varieties offered, none of which will yield high-potency cannabis.
In many European countries, national drug laws explicitly prohibit cultivation of cannabis plants. For example, Dutch law allows for the cultivation of up to five cannabis plants per household. But if you are found to possess more than five plants, you will likely be prosecuted and charged a fine based on plant count, even if your plants are tiny seedlings or clones. Some clone operations have ended up with fines in the hundreds of millions—certainly a disincentive to doing business.
Austria is no longer the only European country with active cannabis clone shops. Earlier this summer, we reported that Hemp Embassy Milan (which has zero affiliation to its apparent namesake in Vienna) had opened its doors to the Italian public. Thus far, it seems that they have been allowed to operate unhindered. Italy is beginning to loosen cannabis and hemp laws, although progress has been patchy to date. We’ll be watching events in Italy very closely as they unfold!
Yet here in Austria, the authorities have apparently decided to live and let live, allowing clone shops to continue doing business mostly unhindered. This hasn’t always been the case—back in 1998, when Bushplanet first discovered the loophole and began to sell clones, they sparked a decade of legal conflict as multiple shops opened, then were subsequently raided and closed down. The shop owners began to appeal on the basis of the Narcotic Drugs Act, and in 2006, after a series of wins for the shops, the province of Vienna opted to leave them alone.
While liberal Vienna and its surroundings may have capitulated early on, many other regions of Austria remain hostile to cannabis clone shops. A recent landmark legal ruling, however, has changed the game entirely, and the Supreme Court ruled that one of the country’s largest clone producers could continue business as usual. Now, as long as plants are not processed into high-THC cannabis, they are effectively legal throughout the country. Clone shops often issue a warning to customers, noting that if growers give their plants less than 18 hours of light per day they risk development of THC-rich flowers. I’m curious as to how the Hemp Embassy Vienna flowers their plants, given that the flowers clearly contain substantial amounts of cannabinoids! Amsterdam’s Cannabis College is allowed to flower their plants just as any other household in the Netherlands, hence their five-plants-only rule. But how does the Embassy get around these restrictions?
The answer is simple, although somewhat painful. At the end of the flower cycle, the team at Hemp Embassy is obligated to remove plants from the soil, roots and all. It’s vitally important that they remain as intact as possible, as cutting stems or removing buds could be considered an attempt to process drugs. Next, the plants are carefully dried, and then the beautiful, 100% organic plants are packed and sealed into containers before being transported straight to the incinerator to be burnt. This process has always been supervised by an attesting notary, and as long as all steps are followed to the letter, no laws are technically broken. As Gregor says, “Just one mistake could bring the Hemp Embassy Vienna to an end. We can’t afford to let that happen.”
Austrians certainly enjoy a situation that is quite unique in Europe, and perhaps the world. But it’s clearly a delicate and precarious situation, one not without inherent risks.
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