Part 4: Cannabis prohibition in Australia; an abject failure of regulatory systems


 | Last revised

Feb, 2022

The first record of hemp seeds in Australia was with the first fleet, and they were marked as “for commerce” with the hope hemp could be produced commercially in the new colony [1].

English Botanist Sir Joseph Banks first saw the incredible potential for hemp to be grown for medicine and textiles in the new colony.

Like much of the western world, cannabis was widely advertised and consumed, primarily for medicinal purposes, with little regulation up until the 1920s.

However, in 1904, attempts to ban over-the-counter sales of narcotics such as Chlorodyne (a common remedy containing cannabis and morphine) were met with outrage. Chlorodyne remained easy to obtain until the 1940s.

In 1925 The League of Nations, the first multi-national, inter-governmental organisation, established the Geneva Convention, an international drug control agreement designed to introduce a blanket ban on opium, cocaine and other drugs. Cannabis was a last-minute addition and was prohibited with the exception of medicinal purposes.

In reaction to the treaty, Australia’s first Commonwealth Health Department director-general advised that opium was the only drug of concern, and there was no need to outlaw cannabis.

However, under pressure from international allies, Australia began to implement drug laws consistent with the Geneva Convention. In 1928, Victoria was the first state to criminalise recreational cannabis use, closely followed by NSW in 1935. [4]

In due course, news publications began featuring prohibition propaganda articles proclaiming that marijuana was a ‘New Drug That Maddens Victims’ and for Australian’s to consider it a ‘warning from America.

From these inflammatory headlines, it’s clear to see how international propaganda infiltrated the Australian consciousness and further maligned the public perception of cannabis within the mainstream.

Marijuana, the exotic narcotic, was blamed for any behaviour society deemed morally ambiguous and unacceptable, with wild proclamations linking sexual promiscuity and cannabis consumption.

“Under the influence of the newer drug, the addict becomes at times, almost an uncontrollable sex-maniac, able to obtain satisfaction only from the most appalling of perversions and orgies. Its effect is the same on either sex.”

Moral panic ensued, cannabis was outlawed and condemned as a menace to society —it became a major social issue and was falsely stigmatised.

The aftermath of the marijuana media beat up was similar to that of the U.S., with minority groups finding themselves at the forefront once again.

But it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the illicit drug trade kicked off in Australia.

Smoking marijuana exploded during the swinging 60s following the discovery of a 200-hectare cannabis crop growing wild along the banks of the Hunter River between the townships of Singleton and Maitland, just two hours south of Sydney. It took many years to remove the vast crop.

After 1967, Australia’s marijuana market was primarily supplied by U.S. troops who were spending their leave from the Vietnam War in Australia.

Between January 1976 and December 2000, the Australian government spent about $13 billion prosecuting approximately 1.5 million drug offences to reduce drug use.

However, as history will tell, prohibition did not reduce illicit drug use; instead, it created an enormous black market, spiralling prison populations and an epidemic of heroin overdoses.

The murder of anti-drug campaigner Donald Mackay in 1977 provoked enormous outrage. It led to the formation of the NSW Royal Commission into Drug Trafficking (the Woodward royal commission) and the Australian Royal Commission into Drugs (the Williams royal commission).

These investigations resulted in a weed drought, which then prompted a heroin epidemic. The drought lasted until the end of the Williams and Woodward royal commissions in 1979, after which the marijuana market quickly recovered.

The futility of prohibition was demonstrated even in “successes” like the marijuana drought, as it created the perfect set of circumstances for the heroin plague. Then the heroin drought of 2001 led to a massive uptick in methamphetamine use. The two drug droughts acted as fertiliser for the roots of an expanding drug network and trade.

“Prohibition is a cure that makes the disease worse.”

Under the rule of drug war advocates like Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Sir Robert Askin, states like Queensland and New South Wales descended to levels of corruption that scandalised their police forces.

Rather than being suppressed by the police, the drug trade flourished and became a lucrative business for corrupt detectives and their mates; even though more people went to jail for drugs each year, there were more and more drugs making it to the street.

At the start of the War on Drugs, free-market economist Milton Friedman declared that the failure of prohibition was inevitable because of corruption as officials succumbed to the lure of easy money.

“So long as large sums of money are involved—and they are bound to be if drugs are illegal—it is hopeless to expect to end the traffic or even to reduce seriously its scope.”

We’ve come a long way since the days of false slander and vilification. Even senior leaders and politicians are declaring the war on drugs a catastrophic failure of past and present regulatory systems.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted in 2014 that regarding the war on drugs, ‘It’s not a war we will ever finally win. The war on drugs is a war you can lose.’

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  1. Kelly

    It is Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, I don’t normally correct these things but it made me think whether it was a different person & thought maybe other people might think the same. But after looking it up, there was only one “Sir” Joh (or Johannes technically) although he had a son named John. Great idea & website though-was looking for somewhere to direct my friend for good information about CBD oil who is very anti-drugs. I’ve been a ACU member for years & successfully got my mother to try CBD oil, was a bigger “anti-drug” supporter besides prescription ones, however, failed at getting her to use it properly in order to benefit.

    • Hinterland co.

      Hey Kelly, thanks for the feedback and picking up the error. All fixed now 🙂 Amazing to hear, the ACU are doing some great work in this space and it’s also great you at least got your mum to test the waters CBD, it can be a slow process for people to accept it.


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