The History and Legalization of Cannabis in Australia

Cannabis in Australia

Cannabis, a plant used for recreational, medicinal, and industrial purposes, has a long and complex history in Australia. The country has one of the highest cannabis prevalence rates in the world, with 36% of Australians over the age of fourteen years having used cannabis in their lifetime and 11.6% having used cannabis in the last 12 months as of 2019.

Early History of Cannabis in Australia

The first record of common hemp seeds brought to Australia was with the First Fleet at the request of Sir Joseph Banks, who marked the cargo “for commerce” in the hope that hemp would be produced commercially in the new colony. For 150 years, early governments in Australia actively supported the growing of hemp with gifts of land and other grants. The consumption of cannabis in Australia in the 19th century was believed to be widespread. Marcus Clarke, author of the great Australian novel For the Term of his Natural Life, experimented with cannabis as an aid to writing. A short story he wrote, Cannabis Indica, was written under the influence of cannabis. Members of Melbourne’s bohemian Yorrick Club (of which Clarke was a member) were notorious cannabis users.

Legal Status of Cannabis in Australia

Like many developed nations, Australia first responded to the issue of cannabis use in the 1920s, acting as a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs that saw the use of cannabis restricted for medicinal and scientific purposes only. Cannabis was grouped with morphine, cocaine, and heroin, despite cannabis’ use as a medicine or remedy in Australia at the time. This prohibition model was applied with little research into cannabis use in Australia. Most drug-related laws enacted by jurisdictions of Australia during this time were related to opium, but as a result of pressure from the United Kingdom, Australia began implementing local laws consistent with the Geneva Convention.

Cannabis Legalization Efforts

On 24 February 2016, Australia legalized the growing of cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes at the federal level. On 12 November 2017, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) made low-THC hemp food legal for human consumption in Australia. On 25 September 2019, the Australian Capital Territory passed a bill allowing for possession and growth of small amounts of cannabis for personal use as of 31 January 2020, although the laws conflict with federal laws that prohibit recreational use of cannabis and the supply of cannabis and cannabis seeds are not allowed under the change.

Attitudes towards legalising recreational cannabis in Australia have shifted over the last decade. According to polling by the National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDSHS) in 2019, more Australians now support legalisation of cannabis than remain opposed; 41% of Australians now support the legalisation of cannabis, 37% remain opposed, and 22% are undecided.

The Greens’ Proposal for Legalization

The Greens, a political party in Australia, announced a plan to legalize cannabis in the country by 2023. New South Wales (NSW) Senator David Shoebridge announced on Twitter on Monday, September 26, that he has obtained legal advice showing that the Greens could pass a bill to legalize adult-use cannabis at the national level. The Greens said they are already working on drafting a cannabis law expected to be available for public consultation by this year.

The Greens’ proposed bill would “provide for the registration of cannabis strains, the regulation of cannabis and the establishment of the Cannabis Australia National Agency. There would be a national cannabis licensing scheme, and a regulator, which would oversee small-scale commercial growing operations and sales. The regulator – the Cannabis Australia National Agency (Cana), would also act as the wholesaler between producers and retail outlets, setting the wholesale price.

Under the legislation, it would be legal to grow up to six plants at home, and to sell through licensed cannabis cafes and dispensaries. It would be similar to the model used in Canada, where cannabis was legalized for recreational use in 2018.

The history and legalization of cannabis in Australia is a complex and evolving issue. While the country has made strides in legalizing cannabis for medicinal and scientific purposes, the legalization of recreational cannabis remains a contentious issue. The Greens’ proposal to legalize cannabis by 2023 represents a significant step towards changing the legal status of cannabis in Australia, but it remains to be seen whether this proposal will gain the necessary support to become law.


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