History of Cannabis Australia. Australia’s most popular drug of choice is cannabis. According to research, one-third of Australians over the age of 22 (almost 6 million people) have tried cannabis. Of them, it is estimated 750,000 people use cannabis on a weekly basis and that 300,000 of respondents use it daily.
While cannabis is illegal, most states in Australia takes a prevention and harm minimisation approach to the problem. This is part of the legal framework that surrounds the illegal growing, cultivating and use of the drug. Recently there has been a more, lenient approach to cannabis with the legalisation of medicinal cannabis early in 2016.
Early days of cannabis
Hemp seeds were part of the cargo of the First Fleet when it landed on Australian shores. Hemp was grown for more than 150 years with the support of the Australian government for commercial reasons.
Cannabis was widely used throughout the 19th Century. It was popular medically and used as a recreational drug by Australia’s artistic community. Author of For the Term of his Natural Life, Marcus Clarke explored its use to help his writing. In around 1868 he wrote the short story Cannabis Indica: A Psychological Experiment while stoned. Until the end of the 19th Century cannabis was widely available. Known as ‘Cigares De Joy’ they were marketed as giving instant relief to things like hay fever, asthma and shortness of breath.
In the 1920s Australia joined other developing nations when it signed the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs. This put cannabis in the same class as heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs even though its use was mostly medical. Australia did no research into the use or effects of cannabis before banning it. Most laws around drugs were originally in respect to opium, but Australia came under pressure to enact legislation in line with the Geneva Convention. In 1928, Victoria outlawed cannabis. All other states of Australia did the same over the next 30 years.
Cannabis in Australia from 1960 to 2000
The use of cannabis and other hard drugs escalated during the 1960s in Australia in direct opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1964, hundreds of hectares of wild hemp were discovered in the Hunter Valley. This prompted authorities to launch a campaign to eliminate it. With media reports of it being a ‘psychoactive aphrodisiac’, hippies and surfers went in search of wild hemp. Many wild stories about cannabis also came out of this time. If you were also there, send us your stories to share with our readers.
US servicemen on leave in Sydney prompted the organised drug trade to grow to meet demand. This led to the 1970s becoming the first-time Australians saw an increase in drug use grow into organised crime. This drug use increase was probably because people could afford to purchase recreational drugs in a reasonable socio-economic climate, and unemployment was affecting the younger generation. During the 1970s the first Royal Commission was held into the perceived Australian ‘drug problem’.
During 1973, the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin, New South Wales had a crowd of around 6000 hippies all smoking cannabis openly. The police tried to arrest festival goers, but that resulted in open rioting. There was some talk of decriminalising cannabis in New South Wales in 1977, that recommended removing jail terms for people caught with cannabis for personal use.
Griffith community and political leader, Donald Mackay disappeared in 1977 after revealing cannabis was being cultivated in large amounts in the Riverina. This resulted in police investigations that discovered crops growing across 31 acres with an estimated product output of 60 tonnes. Mackay’s disappearance was the catalyst for the NSW Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking 1977 to 1979. The story of Mackay’s disappearance was told in the mini-series Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities. You can watch the trailer here.
Where New South Wales took one approach, Queensland police took a more militant approach. In 1976, they raided the isolated Cedar Bay commune expecting to find large amounts of cannabis. They burned down houses and shot holes into water tanks when they only found a small amount of cannabis. Premier, of the time, Joh Bjelke-Peterson responded to public outrage that Queensland took a hard line on drugs.
In 1985, the government started the National Campaign against Drug Abuse to assess the use of illicit drugs among the wider population. It found that cannabis use became more popular starting in the 1970s. Over ensuing years, its popularity fluctuated with between 30% and 56% of Australians over the age of 20 trying cannabis. By 2001, the usage rate of cannabis stabilised at around one-third of the Australian population, which is where it remains today.