The History of Cannabis and Hemp in Australia

Alternaleaf Team
Written by
Alternaleaf Team
Feb 13, 2024
Last updated:
Apr 11, 2024

While the exact details of when and where humans started using cannabis aren’t definitive, researchers have found evidence that cannabis was present over 11,000 years ago in Central Asia. But the first documented use of cannabis is from 2800 BC, when the mythical Emperor Shen Nung listed cannabis in his writings on herbal medicine. 

From Central Asia, humans may have travelled with cannabis south to India, and from there cannabis spread to Greece and the Middle East. Then, the Romans brought cannabis to Europe, and Spanish colonial explorers and British settlers ventured to the Americas and brought the plant there as well. 

Finally, the first British settlers landed in Australia with the first cannabis plants, where Australians would begin a long and sometimes turbulent relationship with cannabis. But a hopeful one, 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, or hemp, was valuable for its versatile fibres – the plant’s potential medical uses weren’t yet known.

The term "cannabis" 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, on the other hand, is grown for its THC and CBD rich flowers.

Sir Joseph Banks, an English naturalist and botanist, brought the first hemp seeds to Australia. Banks 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. But this didn’t last, as the cannabis plant began to garner some passionate detractors.

Why Was Cannabis Prohibited in Australia?

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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