The Story of Cannabis and CBD in Australia: Complete History

Cannabis has a long and complex history in Australia, intertwined with cultural, legal, and medical developments. From its early introduction by European settlers to its current status as a burgeoning industry, the journey of cannabis and CBD (cannabidiol) in Australia reflects broader global trends and unique local factors. This comprehensive article explores the complete history of cannabis and CBD in Australia, highlighting key events, shifts in public perception, and the current landscape.

History of Cannabis and CBD in Australia

Colonial Era and 19th Century

Cannabis was introduced to Australia by British settlers in the late 18th Century. The First Fleet, which arrived in 1788, brought hemp seeds to establish a local supply of rope and sailcloth. Hemp was a vital resource for the British Empire, essential for naval operations and other industrial uses.

During the early colonial period, hemp was cultivated in Australia for its fibre. However, the crop did not thrive as expected, and cultivation remained limited. Despite this, cannabis was recognised for its potent therapeutic applications in medicine. Over time, it was increasingly studied in clinical settings, developed, and incorporated into various therapeutic products.

Even in Australia’s early colonial history, the use of cannabis for medical purposes was well documented. This reflects the plant’s usage in similar colonial societies like early America, where it was widely cultivated and valued. Early settlers in Australia had hemp in the British Pharmacopoeia. It was prescribed for a range of ailments, including pain, insomnia, and gastrointestinal disorders. Cannabis tinctures and extracts were commonly available in pharmacies.

Prohibition and Stigma

The early 20th Century saw the beginning of cannabis prohibition in Australia. Influenced by the United States and international agreements, Australia started to impose restrictions on cannabis use and cultivation. In 1925, Australia became a signatory to the International Opium Convention, which included cannabis in its list of controlled substances.

The 1930s brought further restrictions, driven by anti-cannabis propaganda and the global push towards prohibition. The Australian government enacted laws to criminalise the use, possession, and cultivation of cannabis. By the mid-20th Century, cannabis was widely stigmatised and associated with illegal activity.

Counterculture and Reform

The 1960s and 1970s marked a significant cultural shift, with the counterculture movement challenging established norms and advocating for drug law reform. Cannabis use became more prevalent among young people, and there was growing recognition of its potential benefits.

Despite the increasing popularity of cannabis, the government maintained strict prohibitionist policies. The 1970s saw the establishment of drug enforcement agencies and harsher penalties for cannabis-related offences. However, this period also laid the groundwork for future reform as public opinion shifted.

20th Century: Cannabis and CBD Legalisation Momentum

During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a notable surge in activism advocating for the legalisation of cannabis and delving into its potential medical applications. Influential organisations like the Australian Marijuana Party and the National Organization for Reforming Marijuana Laws played pivotal roles in raising awareness and advocating for policy changes. A significant milestone was reached in 1994 when the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) took a groundbreaking step by decriminalising the possession of small amounts of cannabis for personal use. This momentous action marked a significant turning point in cannabis reform in Australia and provided a blueprint for other regions to contemplate similar measures.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw increased interest in the medical potential of cannabis. Researchers and medical professionals began to explore its therapeutic uses, leading to pilot programs and clinical trials. Despite the growing body of evidence, legal access to medical cannabis remained limited and tightly controlled.

21st Century: Commercialisation

During the 2010s, Australia witnessed a pivotal shift in its approach to cannabis. In 2016, the Australian government enacted legislation to legalise the cultivation and use of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes, marking a significant turning point in the country’s stance on the plant. Farming hemp in Australia is now a fast-growing agricultural subsector. The plant thrives in the country’s harsh climes and has well-studied sustainability, carbon sequestration and water-saving advantages.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) evaluated and supervised medical cannabis products. Their role was to ensure that the entire process was conducted with the utmost focus on safety and efficacy. This groundbreaking decision opened the door for individuals with specific medical needs to access cannabis under tightly regulated conditions.

Under the new regulations, patients grappling with qualifying conditions, including chronic pain, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis, found a new avenue for obtaining medical cannabis through authorised healthcare professionals. This shift heralded a new era in the medical landscape, offering hope and potential relief to those in need.

Rise of CBD Products

The non-intoxicating compound CBD, which is derived from the cannabis plant, has gained widespread popularity due to its perceived health benefits while lacking the psychoactive effects commonly associated with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). The global surge in interest in wellness solutions has resulted in a heightened demand for CBD products. In a significant development, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in 2020 reclassified low-dose CBD products to Schedule 3, permitting their over-the-counter sale in pharmacies without needing a prescription. This decision has significantly increased the accessibility of CBD and has sparked a notable surge in public interest in it as a supplement for overall well-being.

Cannabis and CBD Industry Blooms

Although medical cannabis is permitted, recreational cannabis remains illegal at the federal level in Australia. CBD products have been less stringently treated in regulation. For instance, CBD oil was legalised for non-prescription purchases in 2021. However, in 2020, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) made headlines by becoming the first jurisdiction in Australia to legalise the personal use and cultivation of cannabis for adults. This move has sparked discussions and debates across the country.

The cannabis industry in Australia has experienced substantial growth, attracting a multitude of companies seeking to participate in the cultivation, production, and distribution of medicinal cannabis products. As a result, Australia has emerged as a central hub for businesses involved in various aspects of the cannabis industry.

Australia has emerged as a leading centre for comprehensive cannabis research. Various universities, governmental bodies, and private bodies have been increasingly funding medical trials into novel cannabis-based medicines. For example, a large-scale Western Sydney University trial on medical cannabis as an endometriosis treatment was recently funded for more than half a million dollars. Growing institutional investment and interest in this space will continue to build on these developments in Australia.

Public Perception Shift

In recent decades, the perception of cannabis in Australia has undergone a significant transformation. Once stigmatised and associated with criminal behaviour, cannabis is now being increasingly acknowledged for its therapeutic properties and cultural significance. Extensive research studies and public opinion polls indicate a growing support for the legalisation of cannabis, not only for medical use but also for recreational purposes. This shifting attitude is consistent with global patterns and the expanding scientific evidence supporting the benefits of cannabis.

Changing Australian Views on Cannabis

Cannabis has also influenced Australian popular culture. It is featured in films, music, and literature, often symbolising countercultural movements and social change. The portrayal of cannabis in media has evolved from negative stereotypes to more nuanced and positive representations, further influencing public perception.

Future of Cannabis and CBD in Australia

Full Legalisation

The debate surrounding the future of cannabis in Australia encompasses a wide array of perspectives and considerations. Proponents of full legalisation assert that it has the potential to alleviate the burden on law enforcement, generate tax revenue, and provide a safer, regulated avenue for cannabis access. Recently, the Australian government conducted research showing that the tax revenue opportunity for legalisation would be upwards of $28b over 10 years. Conversely, opponents voice concerns about the potential implications for public health and safety, as well as the ramifications of widespread cannabis availability.

With the global trend toward legalisation gaining momentum, policymakers in Australia are facing mounting pressure to reassess the current legal status of cannabis. The successful implementation of the ACT’s legalisation trial and the increasing body of research supporting the therapeutic properties of cannabis and CBD may pave the way for more comprehensive policy reforms.

Innovations in Cannabis Research and Industry

Australia is poised to be a leader in cannabis research and industry innovation. Advances in cultivation techniques, extraction methods, and product development are driving the growth of the legal cannabis market. Research institutions are conducting groundbreaking studies on cannabis’s medical applications, contributing to the global understanding of this versatile plant.

Expanding Access

Efforts to expand access to medical cannabis continue, with ongoing discussions about improving the regulatory framework and reducing barriers for patients. Streamlining the approval process, increasing the availability of products, and educating healthcare providers about medical cannabis are vital priorities.


The story of cannabis and CBD in Australia is one of resilience, advocacy, and transformation. From its introduction by early settlers to its current status as a promising medical and wellness product, cannabis has played a significant role in Australian history and culture.

As public perception continues to evolve and the legal landscape shifts, the future of cannabis in Australia looks bright. Whether through medical advancements, industry growth, or potential legalisation, cannabis is set to remain a key player in Australia’s journey towards a more informed and progressive approach to health and wellness. The journey of cannabis and CBD in Australia is far from over, and the coming years will undoubtedly bring new developments and opportunities.


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  4. University, W.S. (n.d.). Medicinal cannabis endometriosis study funded. [online] Available at:
  5. Norman, H. (2023). Australia Cannabis Legalization Could Generate A$28 Billion In Tax Revenue In First Decade. [online] Available at:


Steve Jacobs Author Headshot

Originally from Byron Bay (Australia), Steve Jacobs is a writer and expert on the world of hemp. His passion for hemp products developed from working with organic hemp cultivators and sustainable skincare brands in Byron. Inspired by these eco-friendly approaches to crafting superb products, Steve realised the opportunity at the intersection of aromatherapy, natural skincare and the magic of hemp. He founded Bondi Hemp to bring this dream to life, bringing rejuvenating hemp extracts, refreshing botanical hemp topicals and revitalising essential oils to everyday Aussies. True to his Byron roots, Steve infuses every drop of his responsibly produced hemp products with the rich terroir of the Byron Region, resulting in unsurpassed quality without harming the earth. Today, Steve continues to write and speak about hemp, skincare, and aromatherapy from his family’s home in Northern NSW.