Vienna’s War on Drugs: Refugee Crises and the Recriminalization of Narcotics

Tr@nsit Online

Vienna is awash in drug dealers. Since the beginning of the year, when a reform to the criminal code rebalancing the treatment of habitual criminals inadvertently made it more difficult to arrest drug dealers, people selling drugs have been a conspicuous part of the urban landscape.

Vienna’s War on Drugs: Refugee Crises and the Recriminalization of Narcotics

It is for this reason that a broad public and political consensus coalesced behind a reform to drug laws to make it easier for police to detain dealers and for courts to convict them. If the entry into force of these provisions on June 1 and the increased police presence at the major drug dealing sites along the U6 subway line and at Praterstern did not lead to a surge of arrests, the open drug dealing has already visibly diminished.

The public and press have broadly embraced the recent legislative reform and police crackdowns as necessary correctives to the unintended consequences of the recent penal reforms. Set against the broader trajectory of Austria’s – and the world’s – efforts to stamp out the scourge of drug addiction gives reason for pause. This is not the first time Vienna had garnered an unwelcome reputation as a safe place for drug dealers. In the 1920s, the capital of the new Austrian Republic emerged as a center of the international trade in drugs. This was a time when drugs were first subject to international controls, and Austria’s role in the drug trade would have a profound influence on the shape of the drug control system.

The Origins of the Global War on Drugs

Before 1914, narcotics were lightly regulated and easily accessible in most of the world, marketed aggressively by many of the era’s leading chemical and pharmaceutical firms. Cocaine found its way into popular beverages and cough drops administered to children. In Vienna, Sigmund Freud came out as a strong advocate of the drug as a miracle cure for various physical and psychological afflictions. Opium and its derivatives were marketed in popular tonics, particularly to women. Concerns about addiction spurred calls for greater regulation but also, perversely, the development of more potent substances. Diacetylmorphine was first marketed by the German pharmaceutical firm Bayer under the brand name heroin as a non-addictive (and therefore “heroic”) alternative to its cousin, morphine. By the early 20th century, states in Europe and the United States began to restrict access to drugs, but such measures were slow in coming and unevenly enforced.

International drug controls sprang less from such domestic concerns than geopolitical ones. The sale of opium had fueled European imperial expansion into East Asia. In China, two wars over the right of Westerners to sell the drug, then illegal in the country, led to its carving up by European powers. By the end of the 19th century, a global anti-opium movement had emerged in protest of the trade, pointing to China’s deteriorating political situation as a sign of the evils of European imperialism. The American government called two meetings of interested parties in the first decades of the 20th century, leading to the Hague Opium Convention of 1912. The treaty called for states to control not only the trade in opium for smoking but also in the manufactured narcotics morphine, heroin, and cocaine. The convention proved as ineffective as it was ambitious. Few countries implemented its provisions in its first years, and it may never have entered force had the United States and Britain not written an obligation to ratify the 1912 treaty into the Treaty of Versailles and other agreements ending the First World War. The war’s victors granted the newly founded League of Nations with oversight over the trade in narcotics.

Anxieties grew after the war about the dangers of pharmaceutical narcotics. If the confident predictions that Europe’s soldiers would return from the front addicted to morphine proved mistaken, they gave way to fears of a wave of cocaine use that seemed spread from London and Paris eastwards across Europe over the course of the 1920s. The rise in the recreational use of medical cocaine was real, but the public panic also tapped into broader concerns about national degeneration, youthful hedonism, and social change in postwar Europe. Meanwhile, the use of potent pharmaceutical opiates, particularly heroin, seemed to be on the rise in China, the United States, and Egypt. The source of all of these drugs was clear. Europe’s major pharmaceutical firms, particularly from Switzerland and Germany, as well as Japanese ones were churning out narcotics at a huge scale, indifferent to their ultimate destination and use.

Mobilized by public opinion and charged with overseeing the drug trade, the administrators of the League of Nations set about crafting an effective system of drug controls. League officials took aim at excess pharmaceutical production. Limiting production by mostly European manufacturers, they reasoned, would cut off the supply leaking into the black market. The League oversaw the drafting of two ambitious international conventions, in 1925 and 1931, which introduced a distinction between “legitimate” medical and scientific uses of narcotics and “illegitimate” recreational ones, put in place a system meant to tie total global manufacture to the estimated “legitimate” demand, and established a set of international institutions meant to monitor the flows of raw material and narcotics and to impose penalties on transgressing states. The League system laid the foundations for the world’s drug control regime, both by building an international consensus behind a prohibitionist approach to drugs and by establishing the basic legal framework for controlling global supply that has been refined and expanded in the intervening decades.

Far from wiping out the black market in narcotics, the control system spawned the modern illicit trade. Various groups emerged during the 1920s to take advantage of loopholes in the control system by diverting legally purchased narcotics into the black market. As one country tightened its regulations or imposed fresh controls on pharmaceutical manufacturers or distributors, drug smugglers shifted their operations to another state with lax drug laws. In this way, Vienna emerged as a haven for drug traffickers from across Europe – and indeed the world.

The “El Dorado” of Drug Traffickers

By the late 1920s, Vienna had earned an unenviable reputation in international circles as the “El Dorado” of drug traffickers where many of the world’s most prominent drug smugglers gathered and planned their operations. There were several reasons for Vienna’s prominent role in the trade. Its central location in Europe, close to sites of opium cultivation in Southeastern Europe and the major pharmaceutical manufacturers in Germany and Switzerland made it attractive for smugglers. Austrian drug legislation produced in 1928 took aim at the small domestic trade in cocaine fraudulently obtained or stolen form pharmacies but failed to provide for effective punishment of large-scale trafficking outside of the country. Drug traffickers could operate in the city unconcerned about legal sanction.

And then there were Vienna’s Jews. Jews of Eastern European origin occupied a prominent place in the global drug trade between the wars. Their role in the business was clearly exaggerated by official antisemitism, but historical involvement in smuggling across imperial borders and trading in alcohol as well as broad diaspora networks conferred advantages in the drug trade. The large number of Jewish refugees who came to Vienna during and after the First World War made it a visible link in the Jewish trafficking chains. The stream of destitute and seemingly alien refugees had stoked fears of disease and criminality in Vienna, which persisted into the 1920s as the number of refugees dropped. The popular links between these Ostjuden and crime would shape discussions of the drug traffic both at home and abroad throughout the interwar period. The head of the Egyptian anti-narcotics service gave voice to this wider sentiment in 1930 when he reported of Vienna’s traffickers, “This group of Russians, Poles and Palestine Jews probably forms the greatest European organisation for the illicit distribution of drugs in America, Egypt and the Far East.

Vienna’s prominence in the international drug trade represented an opportunity for the city’s long-serving police president and two-time chancellor of Austria, Johannes Schober. In 1923, Schober had called an international police congress in order to encourage the reestablishment of ties between the disparate parts of the collapsed Habsburg Monarchy in response to concerns about the internationalization of crime as a result of the dislocations and redrawing of borders caused by the war. The meeting exceeded his ambitions, leading to the founding of a permanent body in Vienna known as the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC). Initially made up mostly of officers from the former Habsburg lands, Germany, and the Netherlands, the gradually expanded to include police officers from across Europe and from a handful of states overseas. As the commission’s scope grew, so too did Schober’s ambitions. He came to see the commission as the lynchpin of an international system of policing. More than providing a forum for police officials to meet and exchange ideas, the commission would maintain a set of databases on international offenders in its Vienna headquarters. Schober’s frequent entreaties to the League of Nations to develop a common agenda on international crime fell on deaf ears for most of the 1920s. Discussions of the flow of illicit drugs through Vienna offered a new avenue to promote the ICPC’s agenda in Geneva.

In 1930, the League of Nations’ committee deliberating on international narcotics policy in Geneva, invited Austria to send a delegate in recognition of the country’s important role in the illicit traffic. Schober, then chancellor of Austria, sent one of the ICPC’s chief administrators, a Vienna police officer named Bruno Schultz, to represent him on the committee. Schultz would continue to take part in meetings in Geneva until Austria’s annexation by Germany eight years later. Schultz came to Geneva at a time when drug experts were increasingly receptive to arguments that this was a matter best left to law enforcement. In the 1930s, the regulatory approach emphasized in the previous decade had visibly run out of steam. Trafficking groups did not abandon the trade as an increasingly effective control system cut them off from pharmaceutical supplies. Instead, they set up secret factories in East Asia and Southeastern Europe that churned out narcotics on a large scale.

The prominent role of Eastern European Jews in world’s drug trade and the important place of Southeastern Europe as a site of illicit manufacture allowed Schultz to argue that the ICPC’s agenda was applicable not only on a regional but also a global level. In Geneva, he pushed for the official endorsement of the ICPC’s program on international policing, leading in 1936 to the signing of the League’s third major convention on narcotics based on a draft treaty submitted by the ICPC in 1931. The 1936 convention never garnered as many signatures as the League’s previous conventions, but it nonetheless marked a decisive shift in global narcotics policy. Whereas earlier treaties had focused on regulating a licit activity, the production and distribution of pharmaceutical narcotics, the new convention aimed at the criminalization and policing of an illicit activity, the traffic in drugs. And the treaty significantly broadened what was considered criminal, obligating adherents not only to criminalize the illicit trade but also unauthorized possession of narcotics. The treaty signaled the turn in the logic driving drug controls from economic regulation in the interest of public health to criminal policy aimed at maintaining public order.

It would be misleading to lay the blame for the punitive turn in global drug policy solely on interwar Austrian police officials. Washington has consistently pushed for a hardline prohibitionist agenda since the 1930s. And the logic of drug control itself pushed policymakers towards more repressive solutions as producers and traffickers invariably found ways to circumvent newly adopted restrictions. Nonetheless, Schober and his associates played a critical role ensuring the enshrinement of a punitive anti-narcotics program in international law and in building a consensus that drug control was properly understood as a matter of law enforcement. And they did so by exploiting Vienna’s reputation as a center of the largely Jewish illicit drug trade.

The interwar drug control regime would outlive the institutions that gave birth to it. After the Second World War, the United Nations picked up the narcotics agenda of the discredited League of Nations, amalgamating the previous treaties (except the 1936 anti-trafficking convention) into the landmark Single Convention on Narcotics Drugs of 1961. Subsequent treaties have expanded this system, including one signed in Vienna in 1988 which superseded the 1936 instrument. For its part, the ICPC, which was integrated into the German police apparatus during the Second World War, was purged of its Austro-German background. Relocated to France in 1946 and renamed Interpol a decade later, it remains the world’s preeminent international police organization and continues to play a leading role in pushing for better policing of the drug trade. Since 1997, when the United Nations opened its Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, the Austrian capital has once more moved to the center of efforts to control the global flow of narcotics through policing and criminalization.

A New Front in the War on Drugs

In light of this history, recent discussions of drug dealing in Vienna take on greater significance. Unlike in the 1920s, the problem is now domestic dealers and not international traffickers. But as then, the issue is playing out against the backdrop of a refugee crisis. If fears of Jewish criminality once stoked anxieties about of drug traffickers, it is now the influx of Africans and Middle Easterners that has fueled feelings of a loss of public order. The most visible among Vienna’s dealers are Africans, to be sure, but this comes both at a moment of growing unease about the number of refugees moving through the country and in a city accustomed since the late 1990s to see the drug trade principally as a Nigerian business. Recent news reports uncritically perpetuate these assumptions, writing approvingly of police searches of “black Africans” (Schwarzafrikaner) in search of illicit drugs. Statistics of arrests and drug seizures are listed. Those of searches that turn up no drugs go unreported. Far from representing simply a necessary corrective to recent reform of Austria’s penal laws, the recent crackdowns are part of a broader efforts by the city’s government and public to grapple with rapidly changing demographics in the midst of a broader refugee crisis.

And as between the wars, we stand at a critical moment in the international treatment of drugs. Then, the drug control regime was first coalescing around a consensus that the drug trade was principally a criminal activity best left to the police. This consensus is now fraying, as governments question the punitive approach to drug control and opt instead to tackle the problem of addiction using the tools of public health. Austria was an early pioneer of this approach. Since the early 1970s, it has based its drug policies on the philosophy of “treatment over punishment,” offering addicts an alternative to the criminal justice system while maintaining harsh penalties for large-scale dealers. In recent decades, the Austrian case has been overshadowed by more radical experiments or official tolerance of decriminalization of drug use in countries such as the Netherlands, Portugal, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland.

Drug reformers point to these experiments as harbingers of the end for the world’s century-long war on drugs. To be sure, the chief advocates of prohibition – the United Nations, Interpol, and the US government, among others – continue to defend the strict prohibitionist model. But they do so in the face of growing popular and political unease. Recent moves by Uruguay and the American states of Colorado and Washington to fully legalize marijuana certainly represent daunting challenges to the underlying logic of the system. The Austrian case sketches out an alternative path, one that medicalizes addiction but that reaffirms the system’s emphasis on criminalization and policing. This is not a path away from the war on drugs but a way to revitalize it.

The recent refugee crisis in Europe has resurrected many specters the continent thought it had banished. Calls for increased national sovereignty and a limitation on or dismantling of the EU, for an abandonment of multicultural policies and for strict immigration controls, have grown louder and more insistent. It may also revitalize the global drug control regime. Vienna’s efforts to stamp out the drug trade in the 1920s-30s helped birth the global war on drugs. The city’s efforts today may help save it.

David Petruccelli is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna and a former Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM. He holds a PhD in History from Yale University.

League of Nations, Advisory Committee on Traffic in Opium and Other Dangerous Drugs. “Illicit Traffic between Austria and Egypt (Joshua Friedmann case),” 27 November 1930, (League of Nations Document O.C.1284), 6.

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