The History of Cannabis and Hemp in Australia

Updated: May 31

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 now increasingly accepted and praised as a viable alternative for patients across the country.

With this plant’s long and fascinating history, it’s well worth examining where it’s come from and where it's going as we head into a new Golden Age of Australian medical cannabis.

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, aka 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

Then, 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 outlaw 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 161,000 approved medical cannabis patients.

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 cannabis. The plant is now researched, prescribed, and accessible for patients across the country.

With more than 161,000 medical cannabis patients and counting, Australia is quickly changing its attitudes on the use of cannabis as medicine.

Do you have questions about this plant? Find out how medical cannabis can benefit you by booking a consultation with us.

With alternaleaf’s telehealth services, we ensure that everyone has access to a doctor experienced with cannabis, no matter where they live. We offer discrete, empathetic, non-judgemental care, available from the comfort of your home.