The world of weed is a patchwork of different legalities due to the fact that what is legal in one country, or state, can change the minute one crosses a border. Few legal situations are as quirky as that which exists in Austria, where it is legal to grow a cannabis plant right up to the point of flower. This has made Vienna possibly the clone capital of the world.
However, all that could be about to change as political winds are stirring which could yet shift the sands, as is so often the case with the legal status of cannabis. The present government, which was appointed in December 2017, is a center-right coalition between the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), whose far-right sympathies have been well documented.
Last weekend saw thousands of protestors take to the streets of Vienna to protest the government’s hard line stance on immigration. The right-wing coalition has also put the Austrian cannabis community on alert since coming to power due to a proposition in its election manifesto to close the legal loophole which allows clones to be sold, as well as banning the sale of cannabis seeds.
Whether this comes to pass or not is presently a topic of debate within the Austrian cannabis community. Some point to the fact that the proposal was an almost throwaway line buried deep within the manifesto and that enacting it now would go against general moves towards toleration across the European zone. However, some see danger in the form of the political potential of a law change that could score quick and easy points with its conservative support base.
Nevertheless, for now, Austria’s clone scene continues to thrive, with an estimated 40 shops in Vienna dedicated to selling clones and a similar number across the country. These range from small city center store fronts to huge warehouse-style facilities based in Vienna’s industrial estates, where customers can walk in and buy as many cuttings as they like, as if they were buying regular household plants. It has been suggested by the Austrian Hemp Association that in the region of 250,000 clones are sold each month from Vienna alone (with a population of not quite nine million – a statistic which suggests a healthy clone tourism industry too).
So, how did clones become legal in Austria in the first place? In 1998 the country passed a law, the Narcotic Substances Act, which made a distinction between criminal trafficking and drug health problems. It was within the wording of this law that Vienna grow shops such as Bush Planet and Was Denn! spotted a loophole that prompted them to start growing and selling clones. Plants can be grown until they start budding and, technically, so long as they are not intended for picking and using, can even exist in a state of flower for ornamental purposes. Take a stroll around Vienna today and you can come across a shop with giant weed plants being displayed in the window.
The clone scene began to thrive in the capital although elsewhere in the country there were varying degrees of toleration – from city to country, state to state, police force to police force and judge to judge. In the mid-2000s the police started to crackdown on this exploitation of the law’s grey area and there was an increasing number of raids carried out on growers. However, they responded by contesting the legality of confiscations of cuttings and equipment, culminating in a landmark legal battle in 2015 which produced a high court ruling leading to a major Vienna cultivator being acquitted. Since then, Austria’s clone scene has exploded with quality cannabis cuttings on sale for as little as four or five Euros.
The Austrian climate is not best suited for outdoor growing and so the national picture is dominated by indoor set ups. The thriving market supply of quality clones provides a cheap and healthy head start in the grow room, and has spawned an advanced culture of cultivation. Why go through the hassle of popping seeds yourself when you can pop down to the clone shop instead and grab yourself a handful of high-quality clones?
“The Austrian scene is dominated by home growers,” says Milan who owns Wunderbaum, a clone shop in the center of Vienna. “It’s more about smaller grows, but there are a lot of them! And this has had an effect on the market. For example, there is so much high-quality domestic cannabis that we are seeing far less being imported from places like Albania which traditionally supplied Austrians with their weed.”
Wunderbaum is a clone shop that is located on a normal city street in Vienna. You could easily walk by it and not know that an Aladdin’s cave of cannabis cuttings exists on the inside! Milan moved to Vienna from his native Serbia and opened the shop four years ago, inspired by his experience as a grower looking for a superior product to put in his grow room. Unlike many of the larger clone shops, Wunderbaum has chosen a low-key approach, relying mostly on word of mouth to build the business and that’s the way Milan likes it.
“Quality is really important to us. Some of the bigger shops expanded very quickly and with that came huge demand, but that often resulted in an impact on quality. If you are so busy trying to supply all the orders you’re getting then you are going to have some quality issues. I prefer doing things a little slower but maintaining that control.”
Wunderbaum offers customers a standard menu with a selection of strains on offer, from Wappa and OG Kush to Amnesia, which is the most popular of the varieties they sell. Different shops have different ways of cultivating their cuttings – for example some grow from seed and sell on the seedlings – but Milan prefers to take clones from mother plants. He was growing long before he began the shop and prefers to breed for quality, selecting the best phenotypes to serve as the mothers. “It generally takes ten months to produce a phenotype I’m happy to work with,” he says.
This process is long and fairly elaborate and involves working with four different growers in legal sites across Europe. “We will pop thirty seeds, number them and send them out to these ‘neutral’ sources,” he explains, referring to the ‘blind testing’ element he employs. “We will then ask our growers which of those seeds produced the best plants. Sometimes they will come back and say the same (batch) number, sometimes it can be three different numbers. If that is the case, we will take those, get rid of the rest and then begin a new round. In this way, and over the process of many months, we narrow the plants down to the best quality phenotype that we can work with.”
So how does it work for the consumer? The way Wunderbaum and most clone shops work is that consumers have to order their cuttings ahead of time – in this case two or three weeks – and then pick them up at the shop on a designated day. There is an off-site production facility and a smaller one at the shop housing a room full of mothers from which cuttings are taken (these are kept for up to a year). Once clipped, cuttings are placed into cubes containing a mix of coco and peat. It takes eight to ten days for these to root, and once this happens they are given their first dose of nutrients (but not before rooting).
So, where does the future lie for clones in Austria? “We are looking at exotic strains from the USA,” says Milan. “Plant varieties that bring an enhanced cannabinoid profile and a wider spectrum of terpenes. Europeans in this part of the world are quite old fashioned when it comes to their strain preferences and tend to stick to their old favorites. White Widow is a variety that is still very popular in Austria but in the USA this is now talked about as a ‘retro strain’!”
Since he opened he has seen a big shift in the type of customers he serves. In the early days it was 100% recreational growers but, after four years, he has seen that change to an 80/20% recreational/medical shift, and he hopes to see that become 50/50 in the future. He has seen how cannabis can help medical patients and gives the example of an MS sufferer he knows who went from being wheelchair bound to walking on crutches within two years of self-treatment with cannabis oils. Most of the medical customers buying from Wunderbaum are growing and extracting oil to self-treat MS, cancer or epilepsy.
How concerned is he about the possible changes to the law? “Obviously there is some anxiety, but in the context of the trend of the world opening up to legal cannabis, I think it is unlikely.” When asked if he has ever had any problems with the police he smiles. “Only once. The day the filter broke and they had like thirty calls to the local police station.” And what did the police do? “Told us to fix it…”
By Che Capri
Originally published in Weed World Magazine issue 139