The Complex History of Cannabis in Australia
The cannabis plant has had a complex relationship with Australian lawmakers.
The beginnings of this relationship can be traced to the 1770’s, when the British colonised Australia. The colonisation mainly occurred because the British intended on using Australian lands to grow hemp, and the first hemp seeds were first brought into the nation at the request of Sir Joseph Banks with the First Fleet. The bulk of this history is recorded in a book written by Australian historian Dr. John Jiggens, called Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp. Hemp at the time was an invaluable plant, a raw material for many vital products including ropes and clothes.
As the hemp plant increased in popularity its psychoactive offspring, marijuana, became more widely known. The use of marijuana in western medicine was popularised by an Irish physician named William O’Shaughnessy. O’Shaughnessy learned about the medicinal capabilities of cannabis plants while in India as part of the British East India Company. He published cannabis studies in English medical journals which carefully documented the use of cannabis for ailments such as migraines, insomnia and neuralgia.
The global reputation of cannabis took a negative turn when the United States of America began negatively associating the plant with Mexican immigrants. The Harrison Act was passed in 1914 and it declared the use of drugs such as cannabis illegal in the United States. The fact that no scientific proof backed up the ‘dangers’ associated with its use did nothing to stop cannabis from being outlawed in more than 30 states. This began the journey to cannabis prohibition around the world. Under the influence of the United States and the United Kingdom, Australia also established prohibition laws. In 1925, Australia signed the Geneva Convention on opium and other drugs alongside several countries. By signing this agreement, Australia was obligated to enforce restrictions on the use of illicit drugs including marijuana. The influence of the UK and US is the only reason cannabis seems to have been outlawed in Australia in the first place.
In the initial stages of the Geneva treaty, the Australian government operated without much force. The laws were primarily enforced by the United Kingdom and other international bodies. It wasn’t until the late 1920s that Australian states began enacting the prohibition laws. By 1938, cannabis was completely outlawed in Australia.
The Tide Begins to Turn
Although prohibition occurred in the 1920s, the widespread use of cannabis in Australia did not occur till the late 1960s. This can be attributed to a number of factors but one of the major reasons is the Vietnamese War.
At first, the Australia government responded to this drug wave by increasing the penalties associated with its use. In 1977, a Senate committee pushed to remove the sanctions imposed on the personal use and possession of the substance – a state known as decriminalisation. This meeting resulted in the decriminalisation of cannabis for personal use in states and territories including the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) in 1992 and the Northern Territory in 1995. Territories such as New South Wales and Victoria introduced Cannabis Cautioning Schemes which issued warnings to individuals found carrying up to a certain amount of cannabis.
In 2016, under the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the Australian government legalised the use of cannabis for specific medical conditions. Cannabis for recreational purposes, however, is still strictly prohibited.
Although the government continues to prohibit marijuana for recreational use, the nation has witnessed a steady growth in popular opinion in support of legalisation. A poll conducted by the Greens proved just how much Australian opinions have changed since prohibition. For example, the poll showed that more than 1,100 Tasmanians supported legalisation.
Another survey conducted by the Australian National University showed that 43% of Australians supported legalisation whereas 32% supported the government’s current stance. This is a record growth from statistics from 2013 where 44% of the populace maintained the government’s stance on marijuana laws.
Australia is one of the highest cannabis consumers in the world, ranking amongst the top 10 cannabis consuming nations worldwide. The Oceania region – including New Zealand – accounts for 15% of the world’s global cannabis consumption.
Looking To the Future
The Green Party under Richard Di Natale seeks to decriminalise cannabis for individuals over the age of 18. According to Natale, prohibition has failed. The Green party aims to create a system where a government regulated agency is the sole wholesaler and distributor of cannabis in the nation. This agency will also handle the registration of prospective growers and retailers.
Australian Politician, Richard Di Natale. Source
In 2018, Michael Petterson, a young Labor backbencher, proposed a bill to legalise marijuana in the ACT. This bill received widespread support from the Labor and Green parties. Although the bill garnered the majority vote, the bid to legislation is due to last several months due to new laws of parliament.
Legalisation may be a reality sooner than we think.