The Hunter Valley is now known for its fine wine, but it was once the scene of an enormous cannabis infestation that birthed Australia’s infamous weed raiders.
Cannabis was first introduced to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, at the request of Sir Joseph Banks. The cannabis Sativa seeds were then planted and grown for commercial purposes. This continued until the 1925 Geneva Convention on Opium and Other Drugs, which scared Australia into taking a harsh stance on cannabis and other drugs.
NSW would then ban cannabis in 1935 – but this didn’t stop wild cannabis from growing. Over the next thirty years, the Department of Agriculture hunted down wild weed crops and destroyed them, burning large patches of land. However, as cannabis grows very easily in the Australian climate, new cannabis crops continued to grow wherever they were planted.
Farmers first noticed the Hunter Valley cannabis infestation in the spring of 1963. After the Department of Agriculture and the police force were alerted, a ‘search and destroy’ taskforce was formed. The taskforce started pulling out the weed by hand, but this proved futile.
By 1964, the government introduced herbicide control into the region. By this time the Hunter Valley cannabis infestation had spread over thirty square kilometres – nearly the same size as the City of Melbourne, with patches dotted up and down 63 kilometres of the Hunter River.
The public then began to notice the infestation, with one newspaper even printing an article titled ‘Love Drug found in the Hunter Valley’. This inspired people to take advantage of the situation, birthing weed raiders who would sneak into the valley to claim free cannabis.
Over the next five years, police struggled to stop the raiders, as the infestation was so large a patch could reach up to 40 hectares. In Dr John Jiggens paper Marijuana Australiana, he quotes one raider, who said:
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 the herb.
By 1971, the government had decided to take drastic action, using the herbicide 2,4-D on the cannabis. This was no small operation, as large patches had to be sprayed from crop dusters while officers battled the bush weed with backpacks of poison. A year later, however, it was finally successful – as the Department of Agriculture declared the Hunter Valley Cannabis Infestation over in 1972.
Experts now believe that the infestation had been there for over 150 years, as it was most likely planted by settlers William and Archibald Bell in 1823. This would have been a commercial crop, however, as the family loved growing cannabis so much their father argued cannabis should be Australia’s primary export in the 1819 Bigge Royal Commission.