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Marijuana has been generating some media buzz for some time now since Australia legalised medicinal cannabis on February 24, 2016, at a federal level. Today, the cannabis plant in Australia is widely used for recreational (mainly in the ACT, which the recreational use in small quantities is legal), medicinal and industrial purposes. It is only a matter of time before the cannabis plant and its uses will be legalised for medical purposes worldwide.

But as much as cannabis has been growing popular lately, it is always a question on many people’s minds as to why it was outlawed in the first place.

Aside from recreational and medical purposes, the cannabis plant has been proven to be useful in industrial uses in the form of hemp. So, for such a multi-faceted and beneficial plant, what was the history that led to the circumstances the plant has endured then and today?

The History of Cannabis in Australia

Hemp seeds were first brought to Australia in a fleet at the request of Sir Joseph Banks. Cannabis consumption in Australia peaked in the 19th century. Cannabis products like “Cigares De Joy” (cannabis cigarettes) were available then and are believed to relieve cases of asthma, cough, bronchitis, hay-fever, influenza [and] shortness of breath” [1].

The 1920s

Australia was one of the first countries to sign to the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs that only saw cannabis for medicinal, scientific purposes, and nothing else. Despite cannabis’s rare therapeutic effects, cannabis was tied within the group, including morphine, cocaine and heroin [2].

As more states followed suit with the ban of recreational cannabis, cannabis use in Australia was thought to be a significant social issue. With the negative perception alluded to cannabis, new drug control laws and regulations were applied to states and federal levels. The penalties for cannabis-related offences increased too.

In 1938, cannabis was outlawed in Australia due to a campaign and a series of false headlines [3].

The 1960s

Alongside heroin and LSD, cannabis use increased. Following Nixon’s War on Drugs in America, Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and NSW premier Robert Askin supported the crackdown on cannabis use in Australia.

In the late 1960s, Sydney developed an organised drug trafficking, in response to the growing cannabis demand of on leave US servicemen who fought during the Vietnam War. Several crackdowns on illegal cannabis use soon ensued [4].

The 1970s to 1980s

There was a full-blown appearance of hippies on almost all festivals starting in 1973. During the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin, the police force arrested every person who was smoking cannabis publicly, which eventually led to a 6000 strong crowd of rioting people [5].

Following the decriminalisation of cannabis in some of America’s states, talks of cannabis decriminalisation in New South Wales started stirring.

The 1990s

In 1998, Victoria pioneered the first passage of the legislation that allows industrial hemp production under a license. Queensland followed this within the same year.

The Drugs Misuse Act 1986 and the Drugs Misuse Regulation 1987 regulated the production of commercially available industrial hemp within Queensland.[6]

2000 to 2012

Several crackdowns, campaigns, and regulations later, the presence of cannabis in the country remains evident. A 2001 Report of the International Narcotics Control Board noted that cannabis cultivation in Australia through the hydroponic systems is increasing.

The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government passed the Hemp Fibre Industry Facilitation Act. In 2014, the Western Australian government passed the Industrial Hemp Act which allowed, under a license, industrial hemp production.

By 2012, hemp seeds and protein became available in health food stores but with labels saying the product is not fit for human consumption. The Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods in November of the same year, included Sativex, an oromucosal spray with active cannabinoids (compounds naturally existing in cannabis plants) as a treatment for muscle spasticity related to multiple sclerosis [7]

2012 to 2020

On October 17,. Subsequently, the Narcotics Drugs Acts was amended to give way to the cultivation of 2015, the Federal Government made public the legalisation of cannabis cultivation for medicinal and scientific uses cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes. Eventually, by November 2016, the use of medicinal cannabis was legalised at a federal level.

Under a license, industrial hemp production was allowed in South Australia, under the Industrial Hemp Act 2017 [8]. In November 2017, hemp food with low THC was made fit for human consumption by FSANZ or the Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

On September 2019, the possession of cannabis in small amount remained an offence under the Drugs of Dependence Act; however, there are exceptions for individuals aged 18 and above, which allows possession of up to:

  • 50 grams of dry material,
  • 150 grams of wet material,
  • cultivation of 2 plants per person
  • cultivation of 4 plants per household

In December 2020, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) announced a final decision to down-schedule certain low dose cannabidiol (CBD) preparations from Schedule 4 (Prescription Medicine) to Schedule 3 (Pharmacist Only Medicine).

The decision allowed low-dose CBD containing products, up to a maximum of 150 mg/day, for use in adults that have been approved by the TGA, to be supplied over the counter by a pharmacist, without a prescription. The decision limits over-the-counter supply to only those products that are approved by the TGA and included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).

The Takeaway

Cannabis’ disposition in Australia in recent years has been shaped with a thick history of legal impediments, strong public support, media influence, and on. Even with some of these constraints, cannabis consumption for either medicinal or recreational use, managed to establish a strong foothold among Australians. Thus, it’s safe to say that the future of cannabis as an industry or plant does not look so bleak at all.

Endnotes:

1  Jiggens, J. (N.D). True Hemp in Australia

2  Makkai, T., McAllister, I. (1997) Marijuana in Australia: Patterns and attitudes. Available at: https://www.aic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/marijuana-in-australia-patterns-and-attitudes.pdf

3  Otter Publications, Redfern NSW (1996) The Australian Marijuana Grower’s Guide. Available at: https://books.google.com.ph/books/about/The_Australian_Marijuana_Grower_s_Guide.html?id=p8y9YgEACAAJ&redir_esc=y

4  Campbell, A (2001). The Australian Illicit Drug Guide: Every person’s guide to illicit drugs – their use, effects and history, treatment options and legal penalties. Black Inc. National Library of Australian Cataloguing. ISBN 1-86395-362-0

5  Brady, P (200). Emerald buds in the land of Oz. Available at: Marijuana Magazine

6  “Australian History With Hemp | How Hemp Got To Australia | Margaret River Hemp Co”. 10 November 2019. Available at: https://hempco.net.au/australian-history-with-hemp/

7  N.D. Medicinal use of cannabis in Australia: Background and information paper”. Available at: https://idpc.net/publications/2014/08/medicinal-use-of-cannabis-in-australia-background-and-information-paper

8  “HEMP Party Cultivation”. HEMP Party. Available at: https://australianhempparty.com/page/cultivation