Marijuana in Australian History
To understand weed in Australia, I think it is important to look back to when it all started, 1770. Marijuana was first brought to Australia with the First Fleet at the request of Sir Joseph Banks (what a legend). He brought common hemp seeds in cargo marked “for commerce” with the hopes of producing hemp commercially in the new colony.
For 150 years the growing of marijuana was actively supported by the government and consumption of cannabis was believed to be very widespread. You could even buy it over the counter pre-rolled, by asking for ‘Cigares De Joy’.
It was only after the International Opium Convention that marijuana was perceived in a negative light for the first time. The International Opium Convention restricted cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes only. The prohibition model was applied in 1928 after little research taking place, grouping cannabis with the likes of morphine, cocaine and heroin.
Ten years later (1938), cannabis was totally outlawed, thanks to (or should I say no thanks to) a front-page cover in the national newspaper, “Smith’s Weekly”, entitled “New Drug That Maddens Victims”. Labelling marijuana as ‘an evil sex drug that caused its victims to behave like raving sex maniacs’. The article, clearly designed to create fear of the drug, didn’t have much success amongst the public. In fact, there was a significant increase in demand and usage, perhaps because in their attempts to cause panic, they advertised it as ‘the sex drug’. Now I don’t know about you… but I would assume this would only peak people’s interests.
Smith's Weekly "New Drug That Maddens Victims"
It was in this article that the term ’marijuana’ was first introduced to Australians, causing mass confusion as to what the drug was. Following the ‘Smith’s Weekly’ article, the Prime Minister’s Department brought their attention to the drug and its effects, seeking advice from health professionals as to whether or not they should class the drug as ‘habit forming’ therefore including it in ‘the convention on habit-forming drugs’.
Dr. John Howard L. Cumpston, the Director-General of the Commonwealth Health Department, shed light on the fact that this is cannabis, a drug they have been aware of for many decades, and that he strongly opposed classing the drug alongside opiates in ‘The convention on habit-forming drugs’. The government did not listen to him, in fact they fed into the original article’s trap and soon there would be an influx of similar articles spreading the over exaggerated ideas, as facts. The original article, headline reading ‘New Drug That Maddens Victims’ was a complete hit piece on weed, filled with mistruths that ultimately had a long-lasting effect on Australian drug policy.
1961 marked the beginning of the Vietnam War (lasting 19 years), this sparked outrage amongst Australian youth and saw a huge increase in not only marijuana usage but also the use of heroin and LSD. Marijuana was adopted among Baby Boomers in Australia and the US as their symbol of defiance against the war. American President at the time, Richard Nixon launched “The War on Drugs”, naturally the Australian Government did what they do best and followed suit.
1964 the discovery of nearly 30 square kilometres of wild marijuana was found in the Hunter Valley in NSW. To put that into perspective for you, that is over 5600 football fields! Authorities set out to eradicate all plants on the land, however they were met with the baby boomers flocking to the region in search of these plants. This group of boomers were known as the “Weed Raiders”. They evaded police and were able to harvest and distribute small amounts of the “love drug”. The farmers that owned this land were not happy about the trespassers and urged the government to do something about it. The eradication of the 5000+ football fields of crops took 9 years to fully extinguish. Unfortunately for locals of the area, the plants were sprayed with various herbicides, rather than being burnt off. ;)
1976 marks the year Australia implemented a US-style crackdown on drugs. Police pre-dawn raids were made against hippie colonies at Cedar Bay commune in Queensland and The Tuntable Falls Co-operative in New South Wales, where people were murdered and their houses were lit on fire – by police! Ultimately, this resulted in a nation-wide marijuana drought. During the decade that followed, organised crime moved into the weed scene and the price sky rocketed to $450 an ounce, which for the 80’s was an extremely hefty price to pay.
Some say this war on drugs was developed not with citizens health in mind, but as a political ploy, for reasons of social control. Esteemed Journalist Dr John Jiggens says “It was a misuse of drugs policy which greatly worsened drug problems, bringing with it American-style organised crime.”. In 1994 the Australian National Task Force on Cannabis noted that the social harm of cannabis prohibition was greater than the harm from cannabis itself.
Since the war on drugs, we have slowly seen cannabis be re-introduced into Australia. 2016 marked the year cannabis was legalised at the federal level to be used for medicine. 2017 we legalised the consumption of low THC Hemp food. 2019 being the most significant so far for recreational users, we saw a bill pass exclusively in the ACT which allows the possession of up to 50 grams of dry material and 2 plants per person. However, these local laws contradict federal laws so it’s a messy line they’re drawing.
In 2019, the QLD government instructed the QLD Productivity Commission to conduct an inquiry into cannabis imprisonment and the tendency of these convicted criminals to reoffend. The findings of this inquiry were released to the public in January 2020. The commission found that “All available evidence shows the war on drugs fails to restrict usage or supply” and that “decriminalisation would improve the lives of drug users without increasing the rate of drug use.”. The QLD Government – the government that instructed this inquiry to be made – chose to ignore the findings and rejected their recommendations.
I’d love to end this blog with news of full recreational legalisation... however we’re not there yet. Despite Australia’s troubled past involving this plant, I do have hope and believe there soon will be a time where full legalisation is passed in Australia.
Hold on hope guys!
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