Flashback Friday: Hemp in Australia—A Secret History

Learn about hemp in Australia and behold the Weed Raiders, aka Australia’s first marijuana hipsters.
Flashback Friday: The Secret History of Hemp in Australia
High Times

The discovery in 1964 of 500 acres of cannabis growing wild along the banks of the Hunter River inspired a new generation of pot smokers in Australia. But the history of the crop is much older, dating back to the early 1800s, when Britain sent debtors and convicts to start the first hemp colony Down Under. From the November, 1995 issue of High Times comes an excerpt of The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer and John Jiggens, about the little-known history of hemp in Australia.

The Secret History of Hemp in Australia

When a giant patch of cannabis sativa was discovered growing wild in hunter valley, about 100 miles north of Sydney, it sparked the birth of pot counterculture in Australia. But the roots of the crop were much older, dating back to the founding of Australia as Britain’s first hemp colony.

On the morning of November 16, 1964, startled residents of the Australian town of Maitland awoke to the news that the Indian hemp plant—which the newspapers called “the dreaded sex drug, marihuana” had been discovered growing wild along the banks of the Hunter River.

A great mystery was here. The hemp plant is not believed to be native to Australia, yet the sheer size of the Hunter Valley crop seemed to indicate otherwise. The plant was growing along a 40 mile stretch of the river not just in isolated clumps, but in huge infestations covering hundreds of acres.

The radio and TV were swamped with reports about the wild hemp crop. The TV news showed government workers standing in huge paddocks of marijuana, spraying furiously. All the lurid publicity had a powerful effect on the areas young people, who began organizing expeditions to the river.

The time was ripe for the emergence of pot smoking in Australia. The Beatles had just toured the country. For a whole generation waiting to turn on, the only question was, how? The Maitland Mercury was good enough to provide the answer. The plant does not need any special preparation,” the newspaper reported. “Flowering tops of the female plant or the leaves can be cut and dried and used immediately.”

Unlike American ditchweed, Hunter Valley’s wild hemp was a good smoke. Those who ventured there became known in Australian folklore as “the Weed Raiders”—the first pot smokers—legendary characters who came back from expeditions with sleeping bags brimming with reefer and wild tales of monster plants 12 feet high. Both police statistics and popular folklore confirm that the wave of marijuana smoking that was to engulf Australia over the next three decades had its origins among the Weed Raiders of Hunter Valley.

Ultimately, the Customs Department would estimate that 500 acres of the Hunter Valley were heavily infested with cannabis: the largest patch was over 80 acres. The Mercury’s rival, the Newcastle Morning Herald, showed a farmer standing waist deep in a 12-acre paddock of marijuana on his East Maitland property. “Since the presence of the marihuana was made public,” the paper reported, “the Department of Agriculture has been receiving constant telephone calls from people who want to know how to produce the drug from the plant.” Like the Mercury, the Morning Herald did not leave its readers guessing for long. Its article the next day informed readers that marijuana merely had to be dried before smoking.

A grapevine of knowledge about good locations soon spread among the young and hip along the coast, from Noosa Head to Melbourne. By 1966, many were becoming wealthy selling herb on Hunter Street. “What happened then changed many people’s lives and led to the hippie generation,” one old surfer reports. “The grass was the catalyst. Those in the know turned many people on, and they turned others on. It spread very fast.”

For locals, the game of Cops and Raiders was lots of fun. “Getting back to the highway with a sugar-bag full of heads and the cops on the prowl could be pretty nervy,” recalls a former Raider. “Some guys used to fill their hubcaps with grass. Others went quietly on moonlit nights and took their time to pick pounds and pounds of herb. From then on, all our lifestyles started to change.”

Along with the weed, rumors spread among the surfers. One was that marijuana had been seen growing in the flower beds of the Maitland police station. Another had it that local farmers were being paid bounties for turning in Weed Raiders. This last rumor was later confirmed by farmers and by published reports of the Department of Customs and Excise. The first busts of any size in Australia happened at Hunter.

“Sure we told the police if we saw them. We had young ones. too, you know.” an old farmer recalls. “Some of these young [Raiders] were pretty blatant. They used to come up to me and ask, ‘Have you seen any of this marijuana round here?’ I used to direct them to a paddock filled with Stinking Roger [a kind of wild Australian marigold which looks similar to marijuana]. ‘There’s tons over there,’ I’d say. Some of the others were a bit more sneaky, and pretended they were only fishing.”

Meanwhile, locals in the valley speculated about the mystery appearance of this crop that had begun to transform their lives. Where had it sprung from? How long had it been there?

According to the Department of Agriculture, this was the first reported case of marijuana growing wild in Australia. The plant was not indigenous and usually had to be cultivated. Yet the sheer size of the crop seemed proof enough that the infestation had occurred naturally.

Some speculated the plants had sprouted from bird seed, which often contains cannabis. But the drug squad discounted this theory, since the hemp seed in birdseed mixtures is generally sterilized. The most popular theory held that the hemp had been planted by Chinese market gardeners—a predictable target. Australia’s first drug laws, against opium smoking, were fueled by virulent, anti-Chinese racism.

Australia As Hemp Colony

In fact, the roots of this wild Australian hemp crop can be traced back to the founding of New South Wales, the first British colony in Australia. The Hunter Valley crop was first described by Dr. Francis Campbell in his book A Treatise on the Culture of Flax and Hemp, published in 1846:

I found [hemp] growing wild in the greatest luxuriance on the sandy bank of the river Hunter, near Singleton. But whether it had been originally introduced into that part of New South Wales by some settler, or whether the plant be indigenous, I have not yet been able to ascertain. This spontaneous crop appeared to cover about an acre of an extremely loose sandy loam, in a small flat which had been formed by the dislocation of the high bank into the bed of the river…. The plants were all vigorous and healthy, and upon the whole the crop looked dense and evenly.

Dr. Campbell experimented with the seed of this wild hemp and was impressed by its prolific growth rate—as were the farmers in the 1960s, who claimed the plants had one of the fastest growth rates they’d ever encountered.

Current research indicates that the Hunter Valley crop probably originated with the Bell brothers—Archibald and William Sims Bell—the first white settlers of Singleton, in the Upper Hunter, in 1823. Their father, Archibald Bell, had lobbied the British Royal Commission to make Australia a hemp colony for the UK.

Bell’s campaign was hardly heretical. In the 18th century, hemp was as important as oil is in our day. Britain’s wealth and power relied on its navy, and every sailing ship in its vast fleet required half a square mile of hemp every two years for rope, rigging and sails. Thus the cultivation of hemp was, as Dr. Francis Campbell remarked, “a patriotic proposition,” and the British government encouraged the hemp industry with bounties, land grants and free seed to all its colonies.

The period of 1781 to 1786, when the plans were laid for colonizing Australia, was a time of severe crisis in the British hemp industry. Britain relied on Russia for most of its hemp. But in 1781, the Baltic states formed an alliance to cut off British trade with Russia. At war with the American colonies, Britain could no longer get hemp from the USA, either. Britain lost the War of Independence largely because of the crisis in naval supplies.

To overcome this hemp shortage, the British Parliament tried to encourage domestic cultivation with an educational campaign similar to the US Hemp For Victory campaign. This proved unsuccessful, and the government began promoting hemp in Canada, India, Ireland and its newest colony, New South Wales. In 1786, the Cabinet approved a plan for a settlement of convicts and debtors that would grow into a commercial colony, its primary enterprise being hemp.

The first hemp seeds arrived in Australia in 1788 at the beginning of British settlement. They were sent by Sir Joseph Banks, a gentleman explorer and “Father of Australia,” and were marked “for commerce.”

Thus the Hunter Valley crop was intimately linked with the founding of Australia. Its historical significance alone should have guaranteed its preservation. But marijuana prohibition in Australia brought with it a kind of amnesia about the importance of hemp.

The Reefer Madness Campaign of 1938

One of the surprising things about marijuana prohibition in Australia was how swiftly it happened. America’s Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 was barely a month old when the US consul to Australia, Albert Doyle, wrote to Australia’s prime minister explaining its purpose and requesting copies of all Australian laws regulating cannabis. Barely six months later, the Australian Reefer Madness campaign was launched.

“Drug That Maddens Victims!” shrieked the April 23, 1938 front page of the Australian newspaper Smith’s Weekly. The article was subtitled “WARNING FROM AMERICA,” and informed readers (in capital letters) that the “PLANT GROWS WILD IN QUEENSLAND”—the Australian state due north of New South Wales.

“Under the influence of [this] drug, the addict becomes at times almost an uncontrollable sex-maniac, able to obtain satisfaction only from the most appalling of perversions and orgies,” the paper reported. Although the article was attributed to Smith’s Hawaiian correspondent, its tone and content were remarkably similar to the marijuana hysteria fostered by the infamous U.S. Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner, Harry J. Anslinger.

Seven weeks later, Smith’s Weekly delivered its second screed: “Drugged Cigarettes: G-Man Warns Australia: FIRST DOPED PACKETS SNEAKED IN.” According to this article, “A few cigarettes containing marihuana—the drug which causes its victims to behave like raving sex maniacs, and has made pathetic slaves of thousands of young Americans—have been smoked at recent parties in Sydney.”

The G-man in question was A. M. Bangs, the head of the Bureau of Narcotics in Hawaii and one of Anslinger’s deputies. The article ends with a series of direct quotes from Anslinger’s Marihuana—Assassin of Youth, establishing beyond any doubt the Anslinger connection. Not surprisingly, during the Reefer Madness period, Smith’s Weekly was backed by Australian Newsprint Mills, which was buying full-page ads to promote its new woodchip paper mill in Tasmania.

Because of the hysteria whipped up by Anslinger, Indian Hemp was quickly added to the list of plants banned by the Local Government (Noxious Weed) Act of 1938. Immediate destruction was to be the rule. But obviously, the authorities missed a few plants, as the re-emergence of the crop in 1964 proves.

The day after the Hunter Valley crop was discovered, the NSW Agriculture Department began a new campaign of eradication. The department confidently predicted that “the bulk of the infestation should be cleared in a fortnight.” In fact, it was to take five years. During the late ’60s, many university students were initiated into the wonderful world of weed during summer holiday stints, when they were hired by the government to clear, burn, poison and essentially exterminate this breed of wild cannabis sativa which had made its home in Australia for over 150 years.

1 comment
  1. I remember seeing the hemp growing along the Hunter River. My mother pointed it out to me and my father and said it was started by the Indian and Chinese farmers many years ago. It was amazing to see. Are there any photos of the Hunter River banks hemp infestations available?
    On the Newcastle news they said they set fire to it at one stage and locals were getting high.

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