Does Austrian Election Herald End to “Therapy Not Punishment” Drug Approach?

Sebastian Kurs, leader of the People’s Party (ÖVP), is set to be Austria's youngest ever chancellor

Sebastian Kurz is set to be Austria's youngest ever chancellor (Source: Flickr)

The outcome of the recent Austrian elections has the potential to intensify the country’s punitive drug policies and endanger its treatment-focused approach.

Following the general election in Austria on October 15, two parties have begun talks to initiate a coalition government: the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), led by Sebastian Kurz, and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). The two parties plan to form a government by the end of the year, which would move the country beyond centre-right on the political spectrum, and have potentially significant consequences for the country’s drug policy approach.

Kurz, the 31 year-old People’s Party leader who reinvigorated support for his party with an image of youthful populism, offered a hard-line approach in his campaign material’s sole mention of drug policy. “Dealing with hard drugs should be punished with imprisonment in any case,” his website states, “with no prospect of parole or diversion.”

Meanwhile, the Freedom Party is pushing a narrative that ties drug offences to growing immigration rates, with the party’s safety spokesperson Walter Rosenkranz classifying “drug criminality not as a social problem, but as one of immigration”. Rosenkranz demands a “zero-tolerance” approach, and claims that current drug policies have failed because they have “created an excessive drug-scene in some parts of the country, especially in the capital Vienna”.

The Freedom Party’s claim that street selling is an imported crime has been rejected by Michael Dressel, Vienna’s drug policy coordinator. Responding to a police statement that drug trafficking had increased among asylum seekers, Dressel said that there is nothing new about “destitute people tend[ing] to earn an income through illicit ways”. The issue, he argued, is an issue of poverty and societal exclusion, not an immigration one.

The debate reflects the deep political divide across Austria, which has been amplified by fearmongering narratives around immigration, as well as the broader lurch to the political right in many Western countries.

Despite coming in third place in the elections, the Freedom Party’s approach could heavily influence government drug policy, due to the nature of coalition discussions. The party’s only non-negotiable condition in forming a coalition with the People’s Party is that a Freedom Party member – most likely party leader Heinz-Christian Strache – becomes Minister of the Interior (equivalent to Home Secretary). This would hand the Freedom Party a great deal of authority over national drug policy.

Heinz-Christian Strache, chairman of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), hopes to be the country's new Minister of the Interior (Source: Wikimedia)

Since the 1990s, Austria has pursued a drug policy approach dubbed “therapy instead of punishment”. Possession of drugs for personal use is highly unlikely to result in imprisonment. If someone is found in possession of a quantity of drugs within the threshold defined as “personal”, police often direct them to health authorities instead of the criminal justice system - according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. There is a strong consensus among liberal Austrian authorities that problematic drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one.

Additionally, Austrian legislation currently offers compassion that many other countries' laws do not: leniency in sentencing for people who sell drugs to support their own problematic use. This stands in stark contrast to Kurz’ call to scrap the possibility of parole for people convicted of selling drugs.

Potential for further reform, especially for people who use drugs, seems all but impossible if the coalition between the People’s Party and Freedom Party occurs.

In a 2016 interview, the Freedom Party’s Walter Rosenkranz didn’t mince his words when asked if decriminalisation of drug use could work for Austria. He declared such a move to be “a surrender by the state to drug criminals”, and added that “the experiences of other countries show that only a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ is successful”.

Rosenkranz’ statement stands in stark contrast to the reality of drug decriminalisation elsewhere. After decriminalising the use and personal possession of all drugs in 2001, Portugal began investing funds that were formerly used to prosecute people for minor drug offences into health care and treatment. The approach has been a great success; the country has enjoyed considerable reductions in the rates of problematic use, drug-related crime, drug-related HIV infection, and overdose deaths.

While it is yet to be confirmed if a coalition government will be formed between the People’s Party and the Freedom Party by the end of 2017, many political analysts are expecting it. In the case of unsuccessful coalition negotiations, People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurz has said that a minority government may work as a feasible alternative. In either case, Austrian politics seems set to move to the right, which will likely lead to increasingly punitive drug laws – for people who use drugs, and for people who sell.

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