The hemp plant is one of the world’s oldest useful and ornamental plants. The stem’s long, sturdy fibres were used in the manufacture of rope and material for clothing. The seeds served as a foodstuff. As early as 3500 years ago, hemp was used as a remedy and, until the second half of the 19th century, was the most widely cultivated useful plant. Cannabis was already being prescribed as a remedy by Hildegard von Bingen. Cannabis leaves were placed over wounds; hemp was used against gout, malaria, rheumatism or psychological disorders. Practically all areas of application which are still being discussed today were already known in the 19th century.
Although the millennia-old medicinal plant contains enormous medical potential, cannabis continues to be stigmatised as an addictive substance in many countries, including Austria. Although it is possible for patients to obtain synthetic and semi-synthetically manufactured medicines based on cannabis, such as Dronabinol and Sativex, the preparations are nevertheless not affordable for many patients suffering from chronic pain.
The reason for the stigmatisation of cannabis is on account of international conventions, especially the United Nation’s Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs dating back to 1961. Austria has also signed this convention and has been a contracting partner ever since. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs states that all contracting partners are obliged to meet all required legislative and administrative measures in order to limit the production, use and sale of narcotics to medical and scientific purposes. Cultivation for medical and scientific purposes is thus fundamentally possible and also envisaged. Conversely, the recreational consumption of cannabis is not supported. In the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, cannabis has been subjected to the same restrictions as heroin. To this day, the Convention represents the most important foundation for most national legislations. The UN advisory board on drug addiction control thus has a significant influence on the legislator.
The liberalisation of cannabis as medicine is still pending in Austria. A medical treatment with natural cannabis flowers is illegal in Austria. All that is admissible is the treatment with synthetic cannabis, usually in the form of Dronabinol and, since 2016, with extracts from natural THC for medicinal purposes. However, both treatments are simply not affordable for patients suffering from chronic pain, since Dronabinol is not listed in the reimbursement code. Unlike delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD) – as a non-psychoactive substance – is not subject to the Narcotic Substances Act.