Is cannabis legal in Australia? No – but there are a few exceptions.
Like many parts of the world, medicinal and recreational uses have different legal statuses, with medicinal use legal and cannabis available on prescription, and recreational use widely prohibited, except in the Australian Capital Territory (which includes the capital Canberra). However, depending on where in Australia you are, obtaining medical cannabis may be tricky.
Australia is divided into states and territories, and the laws and regulatory practices differ in each.
History of Cannabis in Australia
The British botanist and naturalist Sir Joseph Banks sent cannabis plants to Australia on the First Fleet in 1788, with the intention that colonists would grow hemp to supply the British Navy with rope. At that time, cannabis was not widely consumed in Australia, although it was available for consumption in cigarettes called ‘Cigares de Joy’ until the 1920s.
But in 1926, federal legislation banned the import and use of cannabis via implementing the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs, with individual states introducing similar prohibitive measures soon after. To that end, cannabis and other drugs were prohibited in Australia long before their use became a social issue[i].
The consumption of cannabis became a significant issue in Australia during the 1960s, when U.S. servicemen on respite from the Vietnam War introduced the drug to Sydney’s Bohemian Hub, creating a demand which soon proliferated through the area. Along with the culture of the time, this soon saw a spike in the use of weed and other psychedelics for pleasure or as a tool for those seeking spiritual enlightenment. Throughout the decade, use soon spread beyond Sydney, with authorities responding by increasing penalties for cultivation, possession, and supply resulting in a 1000 percent increase in the arrest rate[ii].
To this day, cannabis is the most widely-used illicit substance in Australia. In 2013, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that the total expenditure on cannabis in Australia in 2010 was $3.8 billion, just over half the overall total amount spent on drugs for the year ($7b overall). This led experts and anti-drug campaigners to comment that Australians spent roughly seven times more money buying drugs than governments spent enforcing drug laws[iii].
Cannabis Laws and Penalties in Australia in 2021
There are separate rules for medicinal and recreational cannabis use in Australia. Medicinal cannabis has been legal since parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs Amendment in 2016, although use is limited and highly regulated. There is no list of qualifying conditions, but clinical trials are ongoing in Australia to determine how certain conditions respond to treatment with cannabis products. At present, any medical practitioner can prescribe medical cannabis if they deem it suitable on a case-by-case basis, and reviews of this guidance are subject to updates at any time. The Office of Drug Control oversees the national medical marijuana program in Australia, with more information on medicinal cannabis available on the Australian Government Department of Health website.
Adult use of cannabis for recreational purposes remains illegal in most provinces of Australia, except for the Australian Capital Territory, which includes the capital, Canberra, where recreational cannabis use has been legal since 2019. Since January 2020, residents of the Capital Territory aged 18 or over are permitted to:
· Possess up to 50 grams of marijuana
· Grow two plants per person, or four plants per household
· Use marijuana in their home
It should be noted that sales or other transfer of cannabis remain prohibited in the Capital Territory, including cannabis seeds. Elsewhere, rules and penalties differ across different parts of Australia.
Cannabis Law in New South Wales
The medicinal benefits of cannabis are recognised in New South Wales, and any approved doctor may prescribe medical cannabis if they deem it suitable. Use, supply, and possession for recreational purposes are illegal, although first offenders caught with a small amount may escape with caution[iv].
Cannabis Law in Queensland
Medicinal cannabis is permitted in Queensland, but smoking cannabis is not – so while a registered medical practitioner may prescribe cannabis if appropriate, it must be consumed in the form of vapour, capsules, sprays, or tinctures. Recreational use is strictly illegal under four different acts, with use, supply, possession, or trafficking all punishable by up to a maximum of 25 years in prison depending on circumstances and the amount of cannabis involved[v].
Cannabis Law in Victoria
Victoria was the first Australian state to legalise medical marijuana, with children suffering from epilepsy granted priority access to treatments in 2017. Possession and use of recreational cannabis is a criminal offence in Victoria, but similar to NSW, first offenders in possession of 50g or less may escape with caution and be required to attend drug counselling. Possession of more than 50g of cannabis carries higher penalties, with 250g deemed a trafficable quantity, and maximum penalties may be 15 or 25 years in prison, depending upon the nature and circumstances of the crime[vi].
Cannabis Law in South Australia
South Australia deems medical cannabis legal and obtainable via prescription from an authorised medical practitioner in the region. Recreational use of cannabis, cannabis oil, and cannabis resin is illegal, with possession of small amounts punishable by a fine and more significant offences such as trafficking or large distribution punishable by a maximum fine of $500,000 or 15 years to life in prison or both[vii].
Cannabis Law in Western Australia
Medicinal cannabis is available via a prescription which can be dispensed at any pharmacy. Having officially decriminalised cannabis in 2004, the decision was later repealed in 2011 as part of a ‘tough on crime stance’ by the Liberal Premier of the state at the time. Personal cultivation is illegal, and driving with THC in your system is an offence, whether medical or recreational[viii].
Cannabis Law in Northern Territory
Medicinal cannabis has been legal since 2019 in the Northern Territory. However, user numbers are low due to a scarcity of authorised prescribers in the area. The remote nature of the Northern Territory means that traveling to those authorised prescribers is difficult. Growing for medicinal use is legal here, but you’ll have to apply for a licence[ix].
Recreational cannabis use in the home has been decriminalised here. If you’re found with less than 50 grams in your home, you’ll pay only a fine. But if you’re found to be in possession of a small amount of cannabis in a public place, you’re looking at imprisonment. Cultivation, even of small amounts, is illegal, and less than five plants can result in a two-year sentence. Twenty plants or more is deemed a commercial amount, and life in prison is the consequence.
Cannabis Law in Tasmania
Obtaining medical cannabis in Tasmania is complicated. Before July 2021, only once conventional treatment had been deemed unsuccessful could you apply to your general practitioner, who would then refer you to a specialist who would provide medicinal cannabis in limited circumstances. It’s only been in the last few months that Tasmanian doctors have been able to prescribe cannabis[x].
Possession of cannabis or any equipment for preparation, smoking, or use of cannabis is illegal in Tasmania, with a stiff penalty of AU$7,950 in place. Trafficking carries a far more severe penalty – 25 g of oil or a kilo of plant material will see you jailed for 21 years.