The History of Cannabis in Australia

As Australia moves forward on the legalisation of cannabis, it’s important to take a look back on the marijuana chronicles in our country and how much public perception drives policy. From the magical discovery of a ton of free and wild weed to a politicised mafia murder mystery, it’s been a wild ride — so far…

The last five years have seen an emergence — technically, a re-emergence — of cannabis legalisation and decriminalisation in Australia. That’s reflected not necessarily in policy (although there’s definitely been some good steps forward) but more so in public sentiment. Today, it’s become increasingly normalised, with many more companies and organisations to get involved with. Since 2016, we’ve had the travelling Hemp Health and Innovation Expo offering education and advocacy. There’s also been the Who Are We Hurting protests, garnering national media attention, as well as the 420 In The Park demonstrations — aka Cannabis Picnics — on April 20 in Melbourne, Sydney, Nimbin, Hobart and now Canberra.

As you may remember from history class, Great Britain decided to colonise Australia because of convicts. In 1779, Sir Joseph Banks stood before a committee of the House of Commons in Westminster. There were more convicts than they knew what to do with and his “solution” was Australia. The opposition thought it was too risky and too far with a sailing-time of six months. But Banks fought for the colonisation of Australia, eventually swaying the minds of his influential friends — King George III amongst them — to become the “father of Australia”.

Sir Joseph Banks was also the first recorded weed dealer in England and Australia. He was a botanist and, more importantly, a cannabis firebrand. There was another possible reason Great Britain decided to colonise Australia, one you probably don’t remember from history class — cannabis. Back then, hemp was to Britain as oil is to us now — vital. It had been this way, a critical natural resource, for thousands of years reaching a new level of importance from the 15th century onwards. While the Age of Exploration evolved into the Age of Imperialism, the entire global economy depended on ships and thus cannabis — it made the sails and ropes. Fun fact: the word ‘canvas’ originated from the word ‘cannabis’.

Britain’s wealth and power directly depended on its access to hemp. Around 100 tons of rope and sails went into each ship, much of it replaced every couple of years. That’s a lot of hemp needed to sustain both their naval and merchant fleets. Almost all of their hemp came from Russia; it was the Achilles heel to their world dominance. They tried to produce hemp domestically — in 1533, King Henry VIII required all farmers to grow hemp and 30 years later his successor, Queen Elizabeth I, increased the required amount as well as the punishment for lack of compliance. Yes, it was illegal not to grow weed. So much so that the queen licensed local drug squads to investigate and enforce the fine. Despite these efforts, England’s arable land mass was never going to satisfy the demand for hemp. Enter, America.

Britain’s hemp problems were solved… sort of. Their plan to make America their own glorified hemp farm backfired when hemp became the bedrock of their domestic economy. The colonists industrialised hemp products like textiles and paper eventually competing against Britain in the global market. As the colonies grew in wealth and numbers, they wanted to rid themselves of Britain’s dominion on trade.

Once again, Britain needed its own hemp supply to thwart off the Russian monopoly. Sir Joseph Banks believed Australia was the answer. Upon his request, in 1788, the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay with hemp seeds in tow. The Botany Bay Debate is an unresolved question among historians as to why exactly England decided to colonise Australia. While some have argued it was cannabis, the fact that it never actually became a thriving hemp colony indicates otherwise. That’s not to say Banks didn’t try.

In 1803, NSW Governor Philip King wrote to him: “From a pint of hemp seed, sent from India in 1802, I have now sown 10 acres for Government… it grows in the utmost luxuriance, and is generally from six to 10 feet in height.” However, Banks and his cultivators failed to realise the difference between Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica, the latter being psychoactive and ineffective for material. This may be the reason Australia was never a major hemp producer.

For Australia, cannabis’s debut in legislation came from the League of Nations in the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs. It wasn’t originally on the docket, but delegates from South Africa and Egypt successfully fought for its inclusion as one of the “other drugs”. It became legally analogous with morphine, heroin and cocaine.

Public perception of cannabis began to change and was further propagated by the United States. The U.S. had its own reasons for rebranding cannabis – they started by giving it a new name: marijuana. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, a record-number of Mexican immigrants settled in America introducing the recreational use of cannabis. Prejudice against Mexican immigrants spun a tale, violent and dangerous, about marijuana and the people who smoked it. Interestingly, cannabis was commonplace, used in many medicines at the time. You wouldn’t know that from the headlines: “Delirium or death: terrible effects produced by certain plants and weeds grown in Mexico”; “Mexican, Crazed by Marijuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife”; “Deadly Marijuana Dope Plant Ready For Harvest That Means Enslavement of California Children.”

The Great Depression exacerbated things. Unemployment and financial distress triggered deeper fears and anxieties about immigrants and general “other-ness”. Marijuana was their weapon. It made Mexicans violent and deranged. It made the black jazz musicians of New Orleans make “Satan’s music”. They were corrupting schoolchildren and they had to be stopped. That was public sentiment and media frenzy when a man named Harry Anslinger became the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930.

The grandfather of America’s War on Drugs, Harry Anslinger took his position just as the prohibition of alcohol was falling apart (it was officially repealed in 1933). He had previously said the idea of marijuana making people violent or crazy was an “absurd fallacy”, but changed his tune when he took his position. Chasing narcotics alone wasn’t enough to keep his department busy so he went after cannabis with gusto. He went to the public, on radio shows and in op-eds, pushing his racist, anti-drug agenda.

After contacting 30 scientists, 29 of which reported that cannabis wasn’t dangerous, Anslinger presented to the public the one doctor who said otherwise. He aggressively stoked the “Reefer Madness” paradigm, a term for the anti-marijuana hysteria taken from a documentary of the same name. He drafted the Marijuana Tax Act which then became law in 1937. After it was passed, the U.S. consul wrote to the Australian government asking about cannabis regulations and including an FBN fact sheet on the dangers of marijuana. Soon, Reefer Madness reached Australia. In April 1938, newspaper Smith’s Weekly published an article headlined “New Drug That Maddens Victims”. It read, “A Mexican drug that drives men and women to the wildest sexual excesses has made its first appearance in Australia.” The word “marijuana” was introduced to the Australian public.

Consequently, a member of the Prime Minister’s Department wrote a memo to the Director of General Health bringing it to his attention. Among his response, he included: “I have to advise that the drug has been known for decades and the hemp plant has been under cultivation in Australia for over 50 years.”

Australia had never considered cannabis a public health issue. In 1894, the Indian Hemp Royal Commission investigated cannabis use and concluded that there were no serious physical or mental health risks. It was grown commercially and widely used medically. You could buy spliffs known as Cigares de Joy, believed to help with asthma, bronchitis, hay fever and shortness of breath. Following in Britain’s footsteps, Australia had historically used a medical approach to address drugs and addiction. That began to change with the American propaganda criminalising drugs and their users.

Back at it, two months later, Smith’s Weekly published another article with ridiculous claims: “A few cigarettes containing marijuana — the drug which causes its victims to behave like raving sex maniacs, and has made pathetic slaves of thousands of young Americans — have been smoked at recent parties in Sydney.” Henry Anslinger with the Bureau of Narcotics was behind the dissemination of anti-marijuana propaganda in Australia. They’d been eyeing Australia after failing to sway the U.K. to join in their anti-marijuana agenda. Unfortunately, they were successful, and Australia banned cannabis on the basis of tabloids rather than medical professionals.

November 16, 1964 — the Vietnam War was raging on, Beatlemania was peaking and fields of cannabis were plastered all over Australian televisions and newspapers. The story broke that there was a 65-kilometre stretch of wild cannabis growing in the NSW Hunter Valley. Televisions showed workers spraying the stalks of cannabis, waist high. Newspapers warned of the “dreaded sex drug” infesting your backyard and destroying your teenagers. The local police announced “would-be marijuana hunters” would be charged with narcotic possession. And there you have it, from the forest of cannabis came the Weed Raiders.

The local Department of Agriculture received constant phone calls from people asking how one would go about getting the drug from the plant. The next day, the Maitland Mercury published an identifying picture of the plant and an article including the handy fact that “flowering tops of the female plant or the leaves could be cut and dried and used immediately”. Little birdies started telling other little birdies the secret trails that would get you to all the weed you could dream of. The cops and weed raiders played countless games of cat and mouse. There were rumours that the police turned the farmers into bounty hunters, rewarding anyone who could successfully help catch a weed raider.

In Dr John Jiggens’s thesis Marijuana Australiana (a good deep dive), he quotes an old surfer who was there: “You could pick the weed at many riverside locations but getting back to the highway with a sugar bag full of heads and the cops on the prowl could be pretty nervy. Some guys used to fill their hub caps with grass. Others went quietly on moonlit nights and took their time to pick pounds and pounds of the herb. From then on, all our lifestyles started to change.”

Change, it did. Of course, cannabis existed in Australia before this but the culture of cannabis started in the Hunter Valley. It’s pretty extraordinary to think about — there were 200 hectares of it, some patches were 40 hectares alone. For reference, one hectare is one rugby field. All along the East Coast of Australia, weed raiders valiantly returned from their expeditions with a bounty of their own. The day after the discovery went public, the NSW Department of Agriculture classified cannabis as a noxious weed and announced its immediate eradication campaign. They assured everyone it would be cleared in a few weeks. It took five years, keeping all the hippies high as a kite.

One of the craziest things about it was no one knew where it came from. Authorities were stumped. It wasn’t native to Australia, and the sheer scale indicated no one was behind the cultivation. It was just there. Naturally. There were lots of theories — it grew from bird seed which usually had hemp seed; it was from the Chinese market gardeners (not the first time the Chinese-Australian population was unjustly scapegoated). All the theories were unfounded. That might be because the NSW Dept. of Agriculture also reported it as the first case of marijuana growing in Australia, which is, as you now know, absolutely untrue. In more recent times, the most probable theory is that it had been there for 150 years.

In 1823, brothers Archibald and William Bell arrived in the Upper Hunter as the first white settlers. Their father was a firm believer in Australia’s potential to be a hemp colony. It’s likely that the brothers started growing it when they moved there. This is corroborated by Dr Francis Campbell who, in his 1846 book A Treaties on the Culture of Flax and Hemp, wrote about a hemp growing wild “in the greatest luxuriance on the sandy bank of the river Hunter”. Campbell wasn’t sure if it was indigenous or introduced by a settler. However, it’s highly likely it was the Cannabis Indica mistakenly grown under orders of Sir Joseph Banks way back when. Well-versed farmers of the time reported similarly that the mysterious Hunter Valley weed did grow ‘in the greatest luxuriance’, claiming these plants had one of the fastest growth rates ever seen. Who really knows now, it was exterminated. However, it and the brave weed raiders live on in our marijuana folklore.

There seemed to be an endless supply of bud. From 1964 to 1969, there was the Hunter Valley crop, and as that started to dwindle and become more dangerous to pick, there were the droves of US servicemen on leave from Vietnam bringing in some of the best weed in the world. It truly was Australia’s Golden Age of Ganja. With amateurs on the front line, the whole scene was created and run by stoners, for stoners. Marijuana became a symbol for The Revolution. This worked both ways — the more conservative (older) populous saw it as the magnum opus to the young, the alternative, the Left. They fought for its abolition. The Liberal Party and its members regularly discussed it along with other topics of concern like Keith Richards’ marital status.

Fighting against drugs was fighting for all the traditional social conventions the hippies were so merrily breaking. For a little while, they lost the fight. Unlike the 1972 election in the U.S. (where the young voters failed to elect their progressive candidate, getting Nixon and his War on Drugs instead), Australian hippies were successful. The Labor party won in 1972 and Gough Whitlam was made Prime Minister.

Within two weeks of his election, sweeping progressive changes were made: the conscription abolished, troops withdrawn, voting rights extended to all Australians over 18, to name a few. As for marijuana decriminalisation, the numbers say it all. In 1966, upwards of 80% of cannabis users were jailed. In 1972, only 20% of cannabis cases saw jail time, and none for possession or use. By 1974, there were zero cannabis-related prosecutions. But in 1975, the same year the Whitlam cabinet was writing legislation to decriminalise cannabis federally, he was dismissed as Prime Minister in what is known as the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australian history. The next 10 years were grim.

Donald Mackay owned and operated Mackay’s Furniture in Griffith, NSW, a major city in what’s known as the food bowl of Australia. He was a family man, loving husband to Barbara and father of four. On a Friday evening, he was heading towards his company minivan when he was brutally shot three times by a 0.22 revolver. To this day, his body has never been found. It was July 15, 1977 and from then on, Donald Mackay became a martyr for the Liberal Party and their Nixon-style War on Drugs.

The two years after Whitlam’s dismissal, organised crime infiltrated the Australian drug scene. The days of hippies putting good times over profits were over. All throughout the country, they received visits from big mafia dudes coming at night, roughing up their homes and giving them the choice to deal heroin or get out. Similar to the results in America, cracking down on marijuana created a vacuum that heroin filled. The new Liberal government cared more about going against Whitlam’s decriminalisation policies than they did about public health. What followed was the Great Draught, hippie dealers were expelled by either police or the mafia plus the biggest raid in Australian history took place, the same raid that led to Donald Mackay’s murder.

It started in February 1974 when members of the Sergi and Barbaro families were arrested for the two pot plantations they were running in Griffith. In court, they played dumb, claimed they didn’t know it was marijuana, they thought it was “American tomatoes”. But it was the sympathetic testimony from a local detective that got them off with a slap on the wrist and a marginal fine. This sparked outrage in the community and especially so in the Mackay household.

Barbara Mackay wrote a letter to the Griffith Area News expressing her distress over the fact that teenagers in Griffith had just received fines of $900, $600 and $300 for smoking marijuana when these two men were only fined $250 and $500 for growing a quarter-of-a-million dollars’ worth of it. And her husband, Don, took it upon himself to find out where exactly these carefully concealed crops were and how to go about getting them removed. He put together a dossier and, because he didn’t trust the local authorities, he sent it to the NSW Attorney General. It included information about their fronts in Sydney and other tentacles of their operation as well as the man he believed to be at the helm ­­— Bob Trimbole.
Bankrupt only a few years earlier, he now was owner of two retail store and a nice, new brick home. The Attorney General did nothing. Mackay then went to some members of the Drug Squad in Sydney which led to the seizure of 31 acres of marijuana, 60 tons worth of pot with a street value of 60 million dollars. Five Italian-Australians were tried and convicted. Unfortunately, Don Mackay was named as an informant and murdered.

The NSW government launched a Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking led by Justice Philip Morgan Woodward. He unveiled the power and influence of the Calabrian mafia in Australia although not much really came of it. The Calabrian mafia was never really served justice nor was the person or people responsible for the death of Donald Mackay. In fact, a few of the main suspects had a solid alibi: they were on a pub crawl with some local police officers.

Right before the escalation of events in Griffith, the Queensland authorities were under scrutiny for their raids of two hippie communes — one was the Tuntable Falls Cooperative and the other more notably was Cedar Bay. The latter became the centre of international news. The raid was excessive — a helicopter, naval ship and lots of cops only to arrest 12 hippies for drugs and vagrancy. They burned all their huts, destroyed their food and water supplies and had a party after with all their alcohol. It was inexcusable but after the media hoopla with Griffith and Donald Mackay, drugs were the enemy meaning young people were, too.

The anti-drug sentiments from the post-Whitlam era are entrenched in the policies we still see today. There’s been some ups and downs in the debate. For example, when in 1994 the Australian National Task Force on Cannabis concluded in their report that the harms of prohibition greatly outweighed the harms of cannabis, itself. However, much of the policy has remained relatively gridlocked despite the reality that cannabis consumption has increased. Each state has its own laws which vary in the degree of punishments for different offenses. This stayed the same for decades until very recently.

You may have heard about how the ACT passed a bill in 2019 legalising cannabis possession for personal use of up to 50 grams as well as allowing each person to grow two plants with a maximum of four in a household. The law was enacted on January 31, 2020. It was the first major legislative milestone towards cannabis decriminalisation since the Whitlam days. It came after a few years of slow and steady progression.

Australia is an excellent position to capitalise from the predicted growth of the global cannabis industry, especially considering it already has experience in the agri-pharma industry producing half of the world’s legal poppy supply for prescription opiates. Some regulated and experimental hemp production has taken place and marijuana exports were legalised in 2018. Moreover, medical marijuana was legalised in 2017 although it is quite an arduous process getting approved for cannabis-based treatments.

Even with the recent ACT law, because cannabis remains a criminal offense federally, there’s a lot of grey area. Buying and selling is still illegal and federal laws can still be enforced there. It’s a move towards decriminalisation rather than legalisation. That said, it’s still a move in the right direction. Across the ditch, New Zealand is expected to legalise weed in the foreseeable future. And as other countries in North America and Asia pave the way towards legalisation, the stigma around cannabis use, both medicinal and recreational, changes and hopefully that’s reflected in our policies here in Australia. Considering the cost of enforcement and the potential economic gains from a cannabis industry, it seems there’s a whole lot of pros with only marginal cons. Let’s see what happens – in other words, to be continued… ■


For the full article grab the April 2020 issue of MAXIM Australia from newsagents and convenience locations. Subscribe here.

What do you think?

Michaela Vybohova