The History of Cannabis and Hemp in Australia

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
May 31, 2022
Last updated:
Dec 15, 2023

Cannabis has origins in Central Asia and Western China, and its history is colourful, complex, and hopeful.

Colourful, as many different cultures embraced the plant as a medicine dating back to 8000 BC. Complex, because the prohibition of and propaganda surrounding cannabis put a hold on research and access throughout the 20th century. And hopeful, as medical cannabis in Australia is the subject of reams of new research that is helping us better understand the potential benefits and risks of medical treatment with this fascinating plant.

The Early Years of Cannabis and Hemp Cultivation in Australia

In the early years of Australian colonial history, cannabis wasn’t thought of as a medicinal plant. Instead, it was originally brought here for more industrious applications.

The term cannabis actually covers a big family of plants, each type is grown for a different reason. What we call hemp is used for its fibres and has little to no THC. Medical cannabis (medical marijuana), on the other hand, is grown for its THC and CBD rich flowers.

Sir Joseph Banks, an English naturalist and botanist, brought the first ever cannabis/hemp seeds that were to be planted upon arrival. He saw a bright future with hemp and envisioned the crop as a sustainable and lucrative resource for Australians.

Following its introduction, hemp was first used in Australia as a tool for sailors. Ropes, sails, and cables were among the most common uses. By the 1800s, it was also being used as medicine for epilepsy, tetanus, urinary tract infections, and more.

The Beginning of Prohibition in Australia and Beyond

Cannabis became taboo in the 1920s. Australia was not alone in its view. Most of the world had agreed to ban opiates, cocaine and cannabis as part of the 1925 Geneva Convention.

It’s important to note that cannabis was a last-minute amendment that was added due to the lack of research at the time and pressure from other countries to include it.

Australia was still researching cannabis for medical and scientific reasons and did allow for cultivation in some areas until its full outlawing in 1960. Cannabis was quiet, but not for long. As other countries began to shift their attitudes toward medical cannabis, so did Australia.

The End of Prohibition in Australia

The War on Drugs in the United States was a catalyst in the outlawing of cannabis in Australia. Now it is widely known that a lot of misinformation about this plant did more harm than good.

As the years progressed and statistics began to show the truth, perspectives began to shift across the globe.

  • 2015: Tasmania passed the Industrial Hemp Act, which allowed for the cultivation and commercial harvest of hemp.
  • 2016:  The Narcotic Drugs Act was amended to allow the production and research of cannabis for medical reasons.
  • 2016: Australia legalised of medical cannabis in Australia
  • 2019: The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) voted to legalise cannabis for recreational use in 2019. The law went into effect in January 2020.
  • 2022: At the time of writing, the TGA reported more than 300,000  approved medical cannabis prescriptions.

The Modern Era: Medical Cannabis in Australia

Change is well and truly underway. Australians seeking an alternative to traditional medicine can finally, and openly, consider medical cannabis. The plant is now researched, prescribed and accessible for patients across the country.

With more than 370,000 medical cannabis prescriptions already issued, Australia is quickly changing its attitudes on the use of cannabis as medicine.

If you think your chronic condition might benefit from medical cannabis, book a consultation with a doctor at a medical cannabis clinic or your local GP. There are a number of risks associated with the use of medical cannabis and your doctor will explain these to you before issuing a prescription. Medical cannabis affects everyone differently and may not help with your chronic condition.

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