It’s official – most Australian adults use recreational drugs. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in 2016 around 42 per cent of the population (10 million people) used alcohol weekly or more often and 10 per cent (2.4 million people) used cannabis.
The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission recorded around 80,000 arrests for cannabis possession in 2016, 90 per cent of whom were consumers, not dealers.
As a result of Australia’s cannabis prohibition, 72,000 consenting adults were criminalised for their recreational use of marijuana – a plant that has been an integral part of human culture for at least twenty thousand years and probably much longer.
Is pot to blame for civilisation?
It is impossible to know when humans first began using cannabis. Archaeologists unearthed seeds in Japan’s Oki Islands dating back 10,000 years, and hemp fibres have been found in Chinese Yangshao pottery 7,000 years old. Agriculture has only been practised for 10,000 years, and it is possible that cannabis may have been the world’s first agricultural crop.
In his book The Dragons of Eden Carl Sagan proposed the theory that the cultivation of marijuana led generally to the invention of agriculture, and thereby the development of modern civilisation.
Originally native to the Hindu Kush mountains of central Asia, the cultivation of cannabis spread across the world through all agricultural cultures.
Owing to the culture of Aboriginal people, cannabis was not grown in Australia until the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip ordered the first hemp crops to be planted.
For thousands of years cannabis has been used as an intoxicant and a powerful anaesthetic – the Chinese term for anaesthetic, mazùi, literally means ‘cannabis intoxication’.
Cannabis fibre, aka hemp, provided ropes and sails for the British navy – the word canvas literally means cannabis. This plant has an intrinsic place in the development of our civilisation – so how did cannabis become an outlaw?
Banned for productivity
The first laws restricting recreational cannabis use, in Brazil (1830) and Mauritius (1840), were aimed at prohibiting cannabis use by slaves, presumably to make them work harder. Unsurprisingly, these laws didn’t prevent cannabis use, and resentful slaves are probably far less efficient than stoned ones.
For decades the British Indian government tried criminalising cannabis on the subcontinent, but eventually accepted the findings of the Indian Hemp Drugs Commission 1894–5 that found ‘The moderate use (of cannabis) practically produces no ill effects.’
The mid-1800s saw the rise of political activists on the conservative protestant right in the US, bent on imposing their puritanical will on society by prohibiting all drugs of addiction – opium, cocaine, cannabis and alcohol. In 1912 the US, pushing for prohibition, convened the International Opium Convention, the world’s first international drug-control treaty. This led to the International Convention Relating to Dangerous Drugs, signed in Geneva in 1925, creating an effective global prohibition on cannabis products.
The United Kingdom was a signatory to these conventions, and Australia obediently joined the prohibition.
Bad laws: bad outcomes
History shows us that prohibition does not stop the use of cannabis. Instead it drives up prices, creating criminal empires and alienating otherwise good and honest citizens. The laws imposed by a pious minority are not only unjust, unworkable and ineffective – they incur an ever-increasing cost of policing and imprisonment upon society. Cannabis prohibition is effectively a political tool targeting those who don’t conform to the social mores of the religious right. Bad laws have bad social outcomes, and the result is a deeply fractured and dysfunctional society where police are widely distrusted and disrespected.
This is the fault of self-serving politicians, not police. Cannabis prohibition has been an abject failure. It is a brutal legacy of our penal-colony roots to punish and persecute people in a futile attempt to change their behaviour – it only causes resentment.
After decades of police raids on peaceful hippy dope growers, we now hear of international gangs growing lucrative cannabis crops indoors to fund criminal empires that import methamphetamine into the country, destroying thousands of young lives.
Meanwhile the movement to legalise medicinal marijuana is gaining traction – but our stubbornly short-sighted governments are offering the lucrative bounty of this new industry to international Big Pharma companies.
A logical and positive strategy would be to draw on the lifetimes of experience of long-term dope growers to guide our budding marijuana industry into the future – while keeping the profits onshore in regional communities and out of the clutches of criminal empires.
Marijuana users are not inherently bad people and they do not deserve persecution based on the intolerance of an increasingly irrelevant religious minority. We urgently need to abandon this destructive police-state mentality and allow consenting adults the right to use recreational cannabis if they so desire. Stand up, Australia, and start treating our good citizens with tolerance and respect.