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The History of Marijuana in Australia

The History of Marijuana in Australia

Cannabis has been used by humans for thousands of years. Marijuana, a type of cannabis, comes in many forms, but the most popular varieties are indica and sativa. It is also referred to as weed. Cannabis is also used to make hemp. Cannabis is the only plant in the world with a psychoactive effect that also can be used for beneficial fibers. It’s also one of the first plants to be harvested by humans.

The Origins of Weed Before Australia

The Origins of Weed Before Australia

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The history of marijuana began in Asia more than 12,000 years ago in Northern China and the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan. Since this time it has been used for both medicinal and spiritual reasons such as clothing, fuel, and food.

In 4000 B.C marijuana was being used in China to produce cooking oil, cloth, rope, and fiber. By 2700 B.C we finally have the first record of Chinese doctors offering a cannabis-infused tea to help with problems such as malaria and gout. Around 1000 B.C in India, a cannabis drink called Bhang was created. It was used by many people to help with several illnesses. Europe got its first introduction to marijuana in 800 B.C when it was brought to the country by the Scythians.

The most well-known physician in the Roman Empire who prescribed medical marijuana influenced European medicine for 1,500 years. King Henry VIII penalized farmers who refused to grow manufacture hemp in 1533 A.D.

In the 9th century, the Romans who had plenty experience with marijuana brought it to England. The English didn’t actually use cannabis to make drugs; however, they did create textiles with it. Eventually, they begin to grow marijuana to produce ship materials and rope.

Cannabis as Medicine in the 1800s

Cannabis as Medicine in the 1800s

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In the early 1800s, very few people in Britain knew anything about marijuana preparation outside of the physicians and those who often worked in medicine. Only a small percentage of the population could get their hands on the plant. By the mid-1800s marijuana was being advocated as a potent drug that can heal tetanus, cholera, mental illness and hydrophobia.

Queen Victoria made changes that required more farmers to grow marijuana. Eventually, they ran out of land to grow hemp. This is believed to be one of the reasons the English sought to colonize the world. People living in this era could go to a store and purchase it for personal use. Some were actually using it as a form of candy. Queen Victoria had a personal physician who readily used cannabis for medicinal purposes such headaches, asthma, menstrual pains, and cough.

Sir Whitelaw Ainslie was one of the first in Britain to write about medical marijuana benefits. An Irish physician by the name O’Shaughnessy released cannabis studies in English medical journals which detailed its use in helping patients suffering from rheumatism, tetanus, rabies, and epilepsy. O’Shaughnessy studied how people in India made use of cannabis and decided to start creating cannabis tinctures for cures. During the Victorian age, cannabis was essential for migraine, senile insomnia, asthma, neuralgia, menstruation issues and childbirth treatment.

During the 1890s the House of Commons found out the Indian Government intervened with the use of marijuana because so many weed smokers were being admitted into the Insane Asylums of India. They considered weed to be the ‘the most horrible intoxicant the world has yet produced.’ This information sparked the interest of the British prompting them to do more research into the effects of cannabis.

From Britain to Australia

From Britain to Australia

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Australia’s marijuana history goes back to the 1770’s. It was the first country ever to be colonized mainly for the purpose of growing cannabis. Marijuana made its journey to Australia at the request of Sir Joseph Banks when they brought hemp onboard the First Fleet. The plant was considered “for Commerce” cargo, and the plan was to produce hemp commercially in Australia.

Hemp was considered to be an essential raw material for just about any maritime empire because it could be used for so many things. Hemp produces the best and most potent natural fiber on earth. It is used to make necessary materials as well as being beneficial as medicine and food.

We received some of the best knowledge about what transpired during those times through a book written by an Australian historian, Dr. John Jiggens, Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp.

Dr. John Jiggens reported that hemp trade was big business for Britain. Joseph Banks believed that colonizing Australia would be the perfect opportunity to help Britain grow their hemp trade. According to Dr. Jiggens, “Britain’s extensive hemp trade made them a target during the war. Britain’s ties to Russia’s big hemp business is the foundation of its empire. If the Russian hemp trade did not exist, the British Empire could never have been as great. The Great Britain empires involvement in hemp trade is the how it ended up on the dangerous passages of the Baltic Sea.”

According to Jiggens, Britain’s intentions for New South Wales was never to find a place to relocate convicts. Instead, this was a way to hide their motives to turn it into a hemp colony. Hemp was far more important than marijuana as it was essential for warships. Hemp fibers have many uses, such as cables, rigging, and sails. During those times it was considered just a valuable as oil is to us in modern times.

Hemp, Banks and Colonizing Australia

Hemp, Banks and Colonizing Australia

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Perhaps the colonization of New South Wales was about more than just producing hemp. To successfully colonize New South Wales, Joseph Banks was necessary. Banks had his own reasons for being involved in Australia as a hemp colony. He was a well-known Botanist who had a vision of Australia as a huge hemp farm.

There was even information released about the English colonizing Australia by the name Hemp 1764-1810. The idea that the English were intending to colonize Australia just to find a new place for convicts was challenged by K.M Dallas, a Historian because he believed there was no way this could be the only reason. There had to be more to such a drastic decision.

In 1797 during the French Revolution wars, Joseph Banks was chosen to be the Privy Council of Trade. During this time Banks was given authority over hemp policies in Britain. He served as the main advisor on hemp in Australia and strongly believed that it was vital to helping Britain manage another empire. The English tested hemp farms in India, however, because of a problem with cannabis taxonomy they did not know they were actually making rope from cannabis suited for marijuana. In India, they were growing “Ganga,” a plant we now know to be marijuana. Unknown to him, Joseph Banks made his mark as a massive producer of marijuana as well as the first known British and Australian drug dealer.

The next 150 years the Australia government encouraged hemp growing by giving growers grants and land. Cannabis use in Australia during the 19th century was all across the board. Marijuana was used for medical and recreational purposes by the Australian people including the literati and Melbourne’s bohemian Yorrick Club members.

Cannabis helped some writers such as Marcus Clarke, author of the great Australian novel For the Term of his Natural Life, with his creative process. He also published a piece called, Cannabis Indica that he wrote while he was using marijuana. Australians had access to cannabis cigarettes up until the late 19th century which were advertised as providing benefits for people dealing with a cough, influenza, bronchitis, asthma, and shortness of breath.

1900s to 1960 - The Cannabis Drug

1900s to 1960 - The Cannabis Drug

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In the early 1900s cannabis became associated with Mexican immigrants coming into the US which led to laws in states bordering Mexico restricting its use and possession. By 1914 the Harrison Act declared the use of drugs as illegal in the United States. Even though there was never any scientific proof that cannabis was a dangerous drug, more than 30 states enacted laws banning its use.

Australia later follows suit and their government prohibited cannabis use which seemed to mainly be a result of the US having influence over the United Kingdom. This led to both the United States and the UK influencing Australia. At the time, the country only had laws banning the smoking of opium.

In the 1920s cannabis demand decreased in Australia when the fears of its psychedelic effects started spreading around the world. Right in line with several advanced countries, Australia signed the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs. Cannabis was not an issue in Australia; however, worldwide Opium was a popular drug, and Australia became one of the largest growers of it. Cannabis was unfortunately included in the new laws. The 1925 Geneva Convention led to an agreement to prohibit the recreational use of coca, cannabis, and opium without intervening in its use for medical and scientific research.

Although Australia agreed to this, they were really just going along with the pressure the US was putting on everyone worldwide. It wasn’t until the drug was banned that it became one of the most used illegal drugs in Australia.

In 1930, The Federal Bureau of Narcotics started a movement against the use of cannabis even though they lacked any form of scientific evidence to back this up. The campaign grew over time and continued for years in the US beginning in 1936.

In 1930, while Harry Anslinger, who was actively spreading anti-cannabis propaganda in the United States was being named the founding director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, some Australian government officials were loud about their disagreement with Anslinger's beliefs. The misinformation spread by Anslinger caused the wrongful imprisonment of Americans for many years to come.

In April 1938, this movement made its way to Australia. The Australian newspaper, Smiths Weekly, had news headlines flashing ‘New Drug That Maddens Victims.’ On the sub-headline was the message ‘Warning from America’. This release made it clear that Queensland grew this plant in abundance. The newspaper was laying the fear on thick for Australian readers.

This movement demonized the work ‘Marijuana,’ but this did not have much influence on cannabis use for Australians.

The political events happening in the United States during these times had a significant effect on government decisions in Australia. This fact makes it necessary to understand events in the United States to know the full spectrum of cannabis history in Australia. During the 1960s there was serious resistance toward Australia and the United States because of the Vietnam War.

US President Nixon gave Raymond Shafer, the governor of Pennsylvania and the National Commission of Marijuana and Drug Abuse, the duty of completing a study on cannabis. President Nixon was consistently facing young protestors who were bothered by the war. Because of this, he needed proof that he could use against the young protestors. The research conducted showed no evidence that the movement against cannabis was legit; instead, it suggested marijuana be allowed.

The Shafer Report made it clear that they did not find any reason to prove marijuana is a problem. This was not the news President Nixon was hoping for, so he completely threw it out. Nixon did not care that Reefer Madness propaganda campaign, as well as the US government, was misinforming its citizens, he continued to allow the lies to spread. Australian politicians followed right along, ignoring all information revealed in The Shafer Report and allowing the false information to spread throughout the country. Through the influence of the US government, Australian authorities waged war on drugs.

1970s Riots and Drug Wars

1970s Riots and Drug Wars

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In 1973, a huge riot broke out when Premier Askin allowed the NSW Police to attempt arresting anyone who was smoking marijuana in public at the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin NSW. Another incident occurred in Queensland when Premier Bjelke-Peterson set up a community to be raided by the police at the Cedar Bay commune.

The Queensland Police showed up with a four-wheel drive, a boat and helicopters just for a tiny portion of cannabis. The officers went so far as to cause chaos by blowing up water tanks which burned down a building as they left the scene. Everything that played out regarding marijuana in Australia was almost identical to the way American law enforcement handled cannabis users – using a gang mob approach.

Donald Mackay, a community leader in New South Wales, came up missing as a part of an underground story involving marijuana, organized crime and corruption within the law enforcement in 1977. This event was such big news that it is the reason behind a popular Australian TV show episode on the Underbelly.

Things changed in the US in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter demanded medical cannabis be decriminalized all over the county. The Australian government was not interested in arresting ordinary people for small marijuana violations. Outside of the few raids that occurred, the people of Austraila did not have as negative of an experience as what happened in the United States where many citizens were thrown in jail as a result of the government’s war on drugs. It wasn’t as easy to ban cannabis in Australia as it was in the US.

Melissa Park, a Federal Member for Fremantle in Western Australia, summarized Austraila’s marijuana history, “This war began in the early 20th century in the US under the influence of the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, who institutionalized his own fears.”

Making Medical Marijuana Legal in Australia

Making Medical Marijuana Legal in Australia

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Despite all the legal actions and pressure from the United States and League of Nations, Australia has made more progress than the US in terms of legalized marijuana. Research and testimonies on medical cannabis have shown highly beneficial for adults and children alike; however, it is still not readily accessible for most Australian citizens.

The Australian government is taking its time to make marijuana legal for those who benefit from its curative properties. The government has also failed to entirely dismiss the misinformation and negative beliefs that still circulate about cannabis despite the scientific proof that exists about it.

Australians in need of cannabis as a treatment for a variety of ailments find themselves breaking the law attempting to get access to this herb to help themselves and their children. According to studies conducted on the effects cannabis has on its users, people exposed to medical marijuana are less likely to commit crimes and consume alcohol.

To-date medical marijuana is legal in Australia. The Australian people are now awaiting the day they can legally grow marijuana so that anyone can get their hands on it as needed. The good news is that medical cannabis will be provided to patients by physicians in Australia in the meantime.

Until the 1930s, Australians enjoyed the therapeutic and curative effects of cannabis both medically and recreationally. Once cannabis became demonized and known as “an evil sex drug that causes its victims to behave like raving sex maniacs,” the plant could not escape the stigma for many years to come. Despite this, many people remained consistent in their love for marijuana, and now we can say that after nearly 100 years, cannabis in Australia is almost entirely legal again.

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Comment Section

One thought on “The History of Marijuana in Australia


By Asiano on 23 June 2018

I'm not sure we can safely say that "cannabis in Australia is almost entirely legal again". It remains a drug of dependence and although medicinal cannabis was legalised, the government dictates who is authorised to cultivate it otherwise it remains illegal. Possession of a drug of dependence, including cannabis, remains a criminal offence and carries a maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment. If the drug in question is cannabis and weighs less than 50g, the penalty could be 5 penalty units up to 1 year imprisonment provided that the drug is not for trafficking (http://www.furstenberglaw.com.au/drug-offences/possession-drug-of-dependence). Seems to me there's still a long way to go.

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