Convicts and Cannabis

10th of August, 2020 

There is currently much talk about the wonders of Medical Cannabis. How it can improve those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress and eating disorders, acute pain, arthritis, asthma, cancer and glaucoma just to name a few.

The sector has recently seen some massive gains!

However, Cannabis has had a checkered history, funnily enough, something that the birth of our nation could not stray away from…

Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

The “Lucky Country”

It is often said that Australia is the “Lucky Country” with golden sun, fertile plains and vegemite – it’s hard to argue with them!

However, we are really a country settled by scoundrels and thieves – all except those of us from the virgin dirt of South Australia.

Historian Dr John Jiggens is just one of a growing band of those who believes the idea that Australia was solely set up as a penal colony to house Britain’s ever increasing criminal population was just an elaborate and convenient cover.

Jiggens purports that the first European settlement in Australia was founded for more dastardly reasons; in order to cultivate gigantic quantities of Cannabis, critical in propelling Britain’s ever expanding naval power.

Sir Joseph Banks – Australia’s first drug dealer?

Sir Joseph Banks, the famous botanist who sailed to Australia in 1770 on the HMS Endeavour discovered hundreds of Australian plant species – but not many people know he may also have been Australia’s first drug dealer. It was his wandering imagination that first caught a glimpse of the fertile lands Australia had to offer and had him envisage this bountiful land covered in wonderful green fields of hemp.

You see the mighty Brits mercantile capitalism and general war efforts were highly dependent on hemp. Hemp ropes. Hemp sails. Hemp tents etc. It’s said that the word “Canvas” is derived from the word “Cannabis”. Kinda makes you wonder where the saying “Winners fly high” comes from too…

Anyway, the Brits were precariously reliant on the Russians for their hemp. They were anxious about any interruption to the supply of hemp which would threaten their superior sea power and consequently the ever so mighty empire itself – so they were desperate to diversify this Russian dependence by establishing their own supplies.

In 1786 Sir Charles Middleton, the Comptroller of the Navy and responsible for all British naval spending, sent a letter to the then British Prime Minister William Pitt saying “It is for hemp only we are dependent on Russia. Masts can be procured from Nova Scotia, and iron in plenty from the Ores of this Country; but as it is impracticable to carry on a Naval War without hemp it is materially necessary to promote the growth of it in this Country and Ireland”

Now Australia wasn’t the first foray that all the Queen’s Men had into growing hemp – their first port of call was India – already part of the British Empire.

Nevertheless, the prim and proper British nobles lacked some very basic cannabis taxonomy – as they were trying to turn “dope into rope.”

You see the Ganja seeds they planted in India produced not the fibrous crop they were wanting – but the drug we know as marijuana….

Let’s just say the efforts in India were not all that productive! (But I’m sure they ate a lot of pizzas!)

Jiggens and others claims that this ganja – though great to smoke, but terrible for rope, caught our young Banks attention and he imported hashish to England supplying the poet Samuel Coleridge and becoming Australia’s first recorded drug dealer.

In 1797 Banks was appointed to Britain’s Privy Council of Trade and thus assumed ownership of hemp policies within the British Empire. Banks took it upon himself to solve the Russian hemp dependence once and for all. Remember this was in the middle of the French Revolutionary Wars and so stability of hemp supplies was of real concern to the British Empire.

The Empire’s Hemp dependency

This was the 1700’s and early 1800’s and the long-stem fibres of these lush green hemp plants were comparable to the dependence on oil in the 2000’s. The entire British Navel strength and absolute dominance of the Empire’s might was totally reliant on this tall green plant.

It is argued that Banks was determined to find a solution and first proposed the penal colony down under where convicts would work vast hemp farms for the good of the motherland. This would ensure both their navel and mercantile dominance could continue as well as the convicts providing cover to the original “Green Scheme”.

So, it was by Joseph Bank’s direct orders, that hemp seeds were escorted on board the first Fleet bound for Botany Bay.

So what happened to Smokin’ Joe Bank’s Hemp Farm?

But what did happen to that big hemp farm Down Under?

  • Soil not good enough?
  • Native pests ate it?
  • Convicts smoked it?
  • Drought?

Nup! Technology – Technology killed it….

You see just as Botany Bay was starting to hum along as a colony and Banks could almost see his vision occurring – Coal took the wind right out of those hemp sails, eventually rendering the old hemp sails completely obsolete.

Smoking Joe Banks never did get to see his vision of hemp fields as far as his blood-shot eyes could see. Instead his plan was beaten by man’s relentless thirst for improvement and increased productivity.

It’s a Massive market that’s going up, and Not just in Smoke!

And so again technology is driving the current Cannabis market, the Medical Cannabis market which many see as the saviour of mankind.

In 2015 it was estimated that in the size of the US medical cannabis market was approximately US$2Billion, in addition to a regulated recreational market of about US$1Billion.

This is big money, even if it is dwarfed by the $60Billion cannabis black market!

Although we typically think of the drug story when the history of cannabis is considered, the therapeutic and medical applications of this wonder weed is long and distinguished.

I think it goes some way to explain why hemp was first re-badged as “marijuana” when it was demonised in the early 1900’s. Now marijuana has again been re-badged as Medical Cannabis ready to cure our ever ill.

It is repudiated that Hua Tuo was the first doctor to use cannabis as an aesthetic during surgery way back in 200AD. It is thought he pulverised the plant into a powder, added it to some no doubt nasty home brew ready for the patient to scull a few shots just before surgery.

Intriguingly, mázui, the Chinese word for anaesthesia, actually means “cannabis intoxication”.

In Australia, a Government Granted Licence is required to produce cannabis for medical or scientific purposes. Further, Canberra has provided approval for the importation, store and sale of the drug. In 2016 and 2017 respectively, NSW and QLD passed legislation for doctors to join the ranks of Smokin’ Joe and supply cannabis (for medicinal purposes only of course).

The Australian Department of Health tells us how this sector is quite literally growing stating “a total of 22 licences have been issued under this scheme: ten medicinal cannabis licences (commercial cultivation and production), six cannabis research licences, and six cannabis manufacturing licences. The ODC has another 56 licence applications under assessment.”

This sector is quite literately growing as we speak!

So once again we see the Drivers in action.

The British Empire’s mercantile dominance was dependent on its naval vessels, which in turn were reliant on the hemp-based sails and ropes for its power.

Technology as always, changes things . This time the disruption came in the form of coal powered steam engines. Faster and more powerful than that of a hemp powered ship. However, as history likes to continually show us, the steam engine soon went the way of the timber mast as the new even more powerful diesel turbines eventually came to rule the sea. You may like to read our “End of the Horse” blog to learn how the motor car solved the pollution dilemmas of New York, London and Paris.

The role that hemp played in the growth of the Empire is almost forgotten and in fact hemp of course ended up in that seedy drug filled end of town that everyone is afraid of. Hemp is now seen as just another illicit drug and parents pray their children listened to Nancy Reagan and just say NO.

But hemp is on the rise, maybe even on a “high” dare I say?

Now remarketed and rebadged as Medical Cannabis with a brand new shiny government granted license attached to it. Who would have ever thought…

It is like all that’s old is new again as cannabis has turned full circle and is now a disruptor to the medical industry…

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