Cannabis: an historic love-hate story

A brief history of how our relationship with cannabis has changed over the years.

Over the last 50 years, cannabis, like bad eighties fashion, has come in and out of vogue, as people first revelled in it as a symbol of freedom and free love, then realised its potential harms, before finally starting to gather more information and consider the possible negatives and positives of the drug. If you re not sure how perspectives on cannabis have changed over time, it s a love-hate story to rival even Pride and Prejudice here s a quick read to get you up-to-date.

From medicine to poison cannabis becomes illegal

To provide some brief context for times prior to the era of free love , cannabis has been used in Chinese medicine for around 10,000 years. Its popularity gradually spread around the globe, and it was used for everything from anesthetising people and managing pain during child birth and menstruation, through to cleansing and treating sore eyes.

In the early 1900s, as modern medicine developed targeted medications, countries like the USA started to question the validity of the drug when compared to others, and to consider the difficulty in regulating dosage and potential for long-term side-effects. This movement soon took hold, and up until recently, cannabis was illegal even as a medicine in many countries around the world, including the USA and Australia. But with staunch bans in place, were the 1900s really weed-free ?

Weed and free love in the 1970s

Free love, bra-burning protests, chants for world peace and a love affair with weed the 1970s was a time of freedom of expression, a break-down of conservative values and a chance to revel in being young, free and for many, stoned.

Big outdoor concerts brimming with throngs of guys and girls swaying to the beat, hazed out on drugs like LSD and marijuana were a sign of the times and something many baby boomers look back on with fond memories if they can remember them! Weed was seen as a soft, natural drug and was embraced by musicians, young intellectuals and plenty of others who grew up to be responsible lawyers, teachers and tradespeople.

Despite the many who enjoyed the mellows of low potency weed in the 1970s, it wasn t completely without its harms, and some regular and heavy users found themselves fighting an addiction that impacted the way they thought, acted and socialised. For many others, weed was something they tried a few times when they were young and never touched again maybe a reason some baby boomers today don t see cannabis as a harmful drug. It is worth remembering though that the way cannabis was used in the 1970s was often different from use these days, with people commonly smoking the less potent leaves or high CBD (low THC) hash, as opposed to the stronger buds on the market today.

Mental health impacts see a decline in weed s popularity

Shift to the late 90s and weed started to wane in popularity. Use declined quite substantially among young people as public awareness campaigns about the dangers of smoking started to take effect and the mental health problems associated with cannabis began to get more publicity.

Suddenly stoners were seen in a different light, with stereotypes surrounding intellectual, hygiene and relationship effects possibly acting as a deterrent for more socially conscious people. More and more people who tried weed were put off by the unpleasant effects that they experienced, including paranoia and other mental health problems. As mentioned earlier, the flowers or buds of the cannabis plant were more often smoked in this time period, rather than the less potent leaves meaning that smokers were being exposed to a greater concentration of THC (the psychoactive component of weed) and experiencing more negative effects than smokers of the drug may have in the 1970s. For more information about cannabis potency, check out our potency factsheet.

Medicinal cannabis

Fast forward to 2015 and the tide of public opinion has shifted again now focusing on the medicinal benefits of marijuana. This has been largely due to vast amount of lobbying money spent on social media messaging in certain states in the US to have citizen initiated referendums passed making the drug legal for medicinal or recreational purposes and an increase in media attention on the issue. These campaigns always feature heart-rending case-studies of chronically ill people who insist that medicinal cannabis is the only answer to their suffering.

Despite this, recent results from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey show that while people may consider use of the drug for terminally ill patients ok, many still don t support recreational use or cannabis legalisation for this purpose. In general, people have been exposed to greater information and ongoing research over the last decade, and many understand that more evidence is required before we truly understand the nature of this drug.

In Australia debate has well and truly begun on the merits and drawbacks of adopting a similar stance on medicinal cannabis to that of the USA. It s a complex issue that will no doubt continue to receive plenty of media coverage and spark debate among politicians, the medical field and patients, as well as the general public as-a-whole. With arguments from both sides still ongoing, it seems that cannabis will remain very much on the forefront of public interest we will keep you up to date with the situation and look forward to your comments and insights.

If you would like to learn more, NCPIC has produced an in-depth research Bulletin, The use of cannabis for medicinal purposes

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