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Who Made Cannabis a Criminal? The History of Cannabis Prohibition in Australia

The story of cannabis prohibition in Australia is a tale woven through the fabric of international politics, societal fears, and a journey from misunderstanding to acceptance. Let's delve into the chapters of this narrative.


reefer madness ad 1920's

The Early Years: A Plant with Industrial Promise

In the beginning, cannabis wasn't viewed through the lens of a medicinal or recreational drug in Australia. Instead, it was introduced for its industrial potential. Sir Joseph Banks, an esteemed English botanist, brought the first cannabis seeds to Australia, envisioning a future where hemp would be a sustainable and lucrative resource. For years, cannabis, particularly hemp, was used for practical purposes such as ropes, sails, and cables for sailors. It even found its way into medicines for ailments like epilepsy and urinary tract infections.


The Winds of Change: International Influence and Prohibition

However, the tides began to turn in the 1920s. Australia, along with much of the world, was influenced by global movements to regulate and ban substances like opiates, cocaine, and cannabis. The 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs was a pivotal moment. Cannabis was a last-minute addition to the treaty, spurred by pressure from other nations and a glaring lack of research. This inclusion set the stage for Australia's own journey towards cannabis prohibition.


refer madness ad 1930's

The American Impact: 'Reefer Madness' and Moral Panic

The 1930s brought a wave of sensationalism from the United States that would deeply influence Australian perspectives on cannabis. An article published in Smith's Weekly in 1938, titled ‘New Drug That Maddens Victims,’ was a cornerstone of this shift. It introduced the Australian public to the term "marijuana" and painted the plant as a dangerous substance leading to "the wildest sexual excesses." This piece, echoing the American 'Reefer Madness' campaigns, marked the beginning of a moral panic around cannabis, heavily swayed by American drug policy and the vocal anti-cannabis crusader Harry Anslinger.


reefer madness ad 1950's

The Ripple Effect: Legislation and Enforcement

As the moral panic took root, legislation soon followed. Victoria became the first state to outlaw cannabis in 1928, with other states gradually following suit over the next few decades. This period saw cannabis cultivation and use become increasingly restricted, influenced more by international pressures and sensational media reports than by any significant local drug problems.


The 1960s: A Cultural Shift and Rising Use

Ironically, it wasn't until cannabis was banned that its use as a drug became more prominent in Australia. The 1960s saw a surge in the use of mind-altering substances, including cannabis, particularly among those opposed to the Vietnam War. This era witnessed a radical shift in attitudes towards drug use, leading to increased policing and stricter drug laws.


say no to cannabis ad 1960's

The War on Drugs and Its Echo in Australia

As the 20th century progressed, Australia's drug policies continued to evolve, often mirroring the trends set by international counterparts, particularly the United States. The War on Drugs, a term popularised in the U.S., had its echoes in Australia, influencing both public perception and legislative actions.


The 1970s: A Decade of Reform and Reflection

In the 1970s, Australia witnessed the first significant legislative changes in response to the growing debate and research around cannabis use. These reforms, although not uniform across the nation, began to distinguish between simple possession of cannabis and more severe drug offenses. This period marked a shift from an almost exclusively prohibitionist approach to a more nuanced understanding of drug use. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was a leader in this transformation, instituting non-enforcement policies for simple cannabis possession offenses and later amending its legislation to reflect this stance.


say no to cannabis ad 1970s

The 1980s and Beyond: Decriminalisation and Harm Reduction

The 1980s saw further reforms, with states like South Australia introducing the expiation notice scheme for minor cannabis offenses, a move that signaled a gradual shift towards decriminalisation. This approach aimed to reduce the burden on the criminal justice system and focus on more severe drug-related crimes. In 1985, the National Drug Strategy was adopted, combining elements of prohibition with harm reduction policies, a pragmatic mix that acknowledged the complexity of drug use issues.


say no to cannabis ad 1980s

The 1990s: Debates and Tentative Steps

The 1990s were marked by debates on harm reduction policies, including discussions on the merits of a heroin prescription program modeled after the Swiss system. However, federal opposition prevented the implementation of such programs. During this time, NSW introduced the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (MSIC) in Kings Cross, a significant step towards harm minimisation, although its operation remained limited.


Say no to cannabis ad 1990s

The 21st Century: A New Dawn for Medical Cannabis

The 21st century heralded a new era for cannabis in Australia. The legal landscape began to change significantly with the legalisation of medical cannabis in 2016. This shift was a response to growing evidence of the medicinal benefits of cannabis and changing public attitudes. The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) went a step further by legalising cannabis for recreational use in 2019, a move that went into effect in January 2020. By this time, the perception of cannabis in Australia had transformed remarkably, with the plant now being researched, prescribed, and accessible for patients across the country.


The history of cannabis in Australia is a narrative of transformation. From its early introduction as an industrial crop to a period of strict prohibition influenced by international politics and sensational media, cannabis has now emerged as a recognised medicinal plant. This journey reflects Australia's evolving attitudes towards cannabis and a broader shift in understanding its potential benefits and risks.

For a more detailed exploration of Australia's journey with cannabis, including the various legislative changes and societal shifts.


Interested in learning more about the history of cannabis prohibition in Australia? Here are some relevant and authoritative sources:

  1. National Library of Australia: The National Library of Australia may have historical documents, articles, and academic papers on the subject of cannabis prohibition in Australia.

  1. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW): AIHW often publishes reports and statistics on drug use and policies in Australia, which might include historical perspectives on cannabis prohibition.

  1. Parliament of Australia: Official reports, inquiries, and discussions from the Parliament of Australia might provide detailed insights into the legislative history of cannabis prohibition in Australia.

  1. Trove: Managed by the National Library of Australia, Trove is an online database that includes a collection of digitized newspapers, government gazettes, and academic papers that could contain historical information on cannabis prohibition.

  • Visit Trove

  1. Australian Government Department of Health: The Department of Health may have policy documents, historical analysis, and discussions on drug laws, including cannabis prohibition.

These sources are likely to provide you with well-researched, accurate, and comprehensive information on the historical aspects of cannabis regulation and prohibition in Australia.


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