‘From Mr Sin to Mr Big: A history of Australian drug laws’

by Desmond Manderson – a review by David Denborough


Desmond Manderson is an historian and lawyer. He is currently the Head of Department of Legal Theory at Macquarie University Law School in Sydney. In this book, written with the support of the National Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NCADA), he traces the history of Australian drug laws and the contexts from which they have derived. His writing is intriguing and illuminating. It raises far more questions than answers.

There is no simple or over-arching reason for the development of drug laws in Australia. But there is a clear message: no matter what we are told, ‘drug laws’ have not been about health or addiction at all. They have been an expression of bigotry, class and deep-rooted social fears, a function of Australia’s international subservience to other powers, and a field in which politicians and bureaucrats have sought power. Drugs have been the subject of our laws, but not their object. (p.12)

As the other pieces in this publication testify, attitudes to those who use illicit drugs have profound consequences to the lives of many young Australians. Desmond Manderson traces the histories of these attitudes:

Only one hundred years ago, legislative structures and social attitudes relating to ‘drugs’ were radically different from those now in place. Their use was left to individual choice, rather than being the subject to strict medical control or even prohibited by law. The lines between medical and non-medical use or between use and abuse, now so clear and bright, were indistinctly drawn. The addict was defined as neither diseased nor evil, and the label was not yet a way of pigeon-holing a whole person. (p.10)

What is so engaging about this book, is that the voices of past Australians speak to us through its pages. So much of what we read about drug use these days is written from a North American perspective. To have the opportunity to reconnect with our own histories and struggles around drug use brings a sense of relief – a homecoming of sorts. Reading of our unique and curious histories also opens up new possibilities for thought and action.

Nineteenth Century Australia

Desmond Manderson begins by considering 19th century Australian drug use when most opium use was ‘neither romantic nor aberrant, but a function of its medical importance, which in this period was second to none.’ (p.4) Manderson describes how ‘patent medicines’ such as Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, Bonnington’s Irish Moss, Ayres’ Sarsparilla and Godfrey’s Cordial all contained opium, while Ayres’ Cherry Pectoral was morphine-based. At the turn of the century Australia was the largest per capita consumer of such medicines in the world and middle-class, middle-aged White women were the most likely Australians to have opium habits (p.53).

How different attitudes to drug use were in those times:

… the lack of drug regulation in the nineteenth century reflected the public’s right to treat themselves … patent medicines were an important part of that right because they were available from chemists’ or grocers’ shelves, without prescription, if and when the customer wanted them. (p.82)

The first Australian drug laws

The first modern drug laws in Australia related to opium use. The laws did not target the opium in patent medicines however, despite its widespread use. Instead they targeted the opium smoking of Chinese immigrants and Indigenous Australians. In the late eighteen hundreds White Australia was preoccupied with fears and bigotry towards the Chinese. Manderson describes how, unlike White Australians, the Chinese smoked their opium. This was a legacy of the immensely profitable and authoritarian opium trade which the British had carried out through the East India Company in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Manderson includes a number of shocking examples of the racism of the day to demonstrate how in the late 1800s in Australia opium smoking became demonised along with Chinese people.

From being seen as a dirty habit in a dirty people, opium smoking came to be seen as an immoral habit in a hated people. It was small step readily taken: from a symptom of depravity, opium smoking became a cause of it; from a sign of evil, it became an active agent of it. (p. 24)

The very first laws to specifically prohibit opium were, however, directed towards Indigenous Australians. Manderson describes how the Chinese on the gold fields at times paid Indigenous Australians for their labour in opium. The fact that Indigenous Australians would often prefer to work for Chinese rather than White Australians was apparently a source of anger for some White Australians. The only explanation they had was the opium, although Manderson suspects the reason for Indigenous Australians choosing to work for the Chinese may have had more to do with the treatment they received from white Australians (p.36)! Whatever the case, in 1897, the supply of both alcohol and opium to Indigenous Australians was outlawed.

Virulent campaigns against all opium smoking followed and eventually resulted in it being outlawed. The consumption of alcohol and opium within patent medicines by white Australians continued unabated.

What would it mean for contemporary white Australia to seriously grapple with the racist origins of its attitudes to certain drugs? What difference would it make to our attitudes to the current ‘war on drugs’ if we were more aware of the wars that have been fought on other drugs and other people throughout Australia’s history?

Moral crusades

Manderson describes how in the early years of the twentieth century, opium was not the only object of moral crusades.

Many of the most vigorous anti-opium groups were temperance organisations whose activities were mainly focused on the prohibition of alcohol. Still other crusaders fought against the consumption of patent medicines, or tobacco with equal passion. For Samuel Knaggs, ‘the pernicious habit of imbibing [immoderate] quantities of tea at each meal … is as culpable and detrimental to health … as the sensual indulgences of the inebriates of all countries’. (p.50)

How did alcohol escape prohibition here in Australia? The movement for prohibition was apparently very powerful in the first decades of this century. Manderson reminds us with a delicious choice of words that the United States was a ‘teetotalitarian’ state from 1918 to 1933. Here in Australia opium smoking was criminalised while alcohol drinking was not. Why? Manderson believes it was because alcohol was seen as ‘the nation’s ‘drug of choice’’ (p.51) He goes on to quote remarkable examples of white supremacy that defended alcohol as the birthright of the White races (p.51).

The cost of prohibition

When opium smoking was finally outlawed in 1905 there were dissenting voices. Manderson introduces us to some of them including William Holman who was representing the Labor Party in NSW when he protested: [This] is not an act of humanitarianism, but an act of absolute brutality. (p.55)

What would it mean to us and our current conversations about drug use and drug laws to be aware of these histories of dissent? What would it mean if we carried with us in our conversations those Australians who at every opportunity have tried to articulate the complexities and the discrimination that have accompanied Australia’s approaches to drug control over the last two hundred years?

HNP Wollaston is another such Australian. In 1908 he was the head of Customs. He spoke out about the real effects of the prohibition of opium.

Owing to total prohibition, the price of opium has risen enormously…The Commonwealth gladly gave up about 60,000 pounds revenue [through duties that had applied when opium importation was legal], with a view to the suppression of the evil, but the result has not been what was hoped for. What now appears to be the effect of total prohibition is that, while we have lost the duty, the opium is still imported pretty freely. (p.61)

A widening net

With the first domestic laws in place, the groundwork had been laid for a legalistic approach to drugs. According to Manderson, in early twentieth century Australia – apart from the issue of opium smoking – drug policy was not an issue that attracted considerable attention. Internationally it was a different matter. The League of Nations was drawing up international law in relation to drug use. In 1912 Australia became a signatory to the Hague Convention and in 1925 to the Geneva Convention. These treaties incrementally built a structure of law to criminalise a wide range of drug use and to punish offenders. Through Manderson’s eyes, Australia in these years had no strong opinions of its own (p.70). Between 1910 and 1930 illegal use of the drugs being discussed in the treaties – such as opium, heroin, cocaine and morphine – was not common nor a big issue in Australia. What was more significant locally were the changes that were taking place in relation to legal drug use.

The rise of the medical profession

Where once chemists and grocers dispensed over the counter medicines that included heroin and cocaine (as discussed above), in the first few decades of the twentieth century these substances gradually came to be under the control of the medical profession.

Control over the distribution of ‘dangerous drugs’ had passed from the hands of the public and of chemists into the hands of the medical profession. Drug use was no longer seen as a matter of individual choice. It was a medical issue, to be decided not by the public, but for them. (p.86)

According to Manderson, with the rise of the medical profession the meanings of drug use in Australia changed significantly.

The appropriation of drugs by medical experts meant that they could only be legitimately used in ways and for purposes defined by doctors, that is, solely in the treatment of sickness as determined by doctors. The consumer of drugs had disappeared, and only the patient remained. (p.92)

Simultaneously, addiction began to be seen as a disease, as an illness.

By defining all users of illegal drugs as addicts, breaking the law itself became a sign of illness … Non-conformists were ill – their conduct was not a conscious decision to disobey the law, but a compulsion over which they had no control. Slowly but surely, the villain was becoming a victim. (p.103)

What would it mean if these histories of the changes of meaning of drug use were more visible and available to current day users? Of what use could these histories be put by those young people who are resisting pathological, or moral understandings of their drug use?

The demographics of drug use

One of the interesting factors that Manderson discusses is how the demographics of drug use in Australia remained remarkably static in the first half of the twentieth century while the meanings of this use changed considerably:

While cocaine use by prostitutes and the underworld [after WWI] attracted publicity and penalties, most drug addiction in Australia (in the early 1930s) still conformed to nineteenth century patterns. Apart from ageing Chinese opium smokers, drug addicts were middle-class, middle-aged, frequently doctors or other health care professionals, and their habituation was most often the result of careless or lengthy therapeutic use. This demography continued with remarkably little change until, during, and well after, the Second World War.(p.106)

While use of illegal drugs in Australia was not a big issue prior to WWII, the medical use of opiates flourished.

Heroin was prescribed for the alleviation of chronic and acute pain, during the final stages of cancer, and to ease the pains of childbirth. It was available from chemists as an ingredient in cough suppressants and…[in a history often not known today] addicts were allowed to have it under medical supervision. (p.112)

Apparently, by 1936, Australia consumed more heroin per capita than any other country in the world! (p.111)


Manderson describes how the entire climate of discussion around drugs and drug policy changed after WWII. As in all affairs of the state, Australia became much more influenced by US policy rather than that of the UK and in relation to drugs, this meant becoming increasingly punitive and legalistic.

By the mid 1950s, America’s anti-drug campaign was accompanied and intensified by a twin paranoia which warped public debate in the United States for years: communism … the fear of drugs was used to justify anti-communist extremism and the fear of communism was used to justify anti-drug extremism. (p.123)

According to Manderson, there was no ‘cold war on drugs’ in Australia. However, he describes how Australians were indoctrinated with stories of ‘communist heroin traffickers’ and ‘depraved marijuana smokers’ for a generation before there was any significant illegal use of these drugs in Australia (p.124). When these drugs did arrive in Australia it was not surprising that their appearance provoked anger and fear.

The influence of North America led to Australia criminalising all uses of heroin in 1953 despite strong opposition by figures within the Australian medical profession. This was with some degree of irony – according to Manderson there was no recreational use of heroin in Australia at that time. It was being used by the medical profession as a pain reliever!

In the 1950s, Manderson points out, Australia once again became the world leader in the taking of a legal drug:

As a cure-all for women who felt unwell or depressed, ‘A Bex and a good lie down’ was an Australian cultural tradition. It was a way to suppress women’s feelings of alienation, an agency of their oppression, and an easy means of social control. Australians became the largest consumers of APC (aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine) tablets and powders in the world – another chapter in our long history of extreme drug-taking – and in consequence had the highest incidence of renal disease in the world … just as illegal drugs were unacceptable and bad, those that were legal to buy were considered to be good. (p.136)

What would it mean if when talking about drug use and ‘the drug problem’ we were aware of the histories of legal drug use in this country? What difference would it make to the stigma surrounding illicit drug use?

Meanwhile throughout the 1950s, Australia continued to sign international treaties and the norms of North America became deeply embedded in our own thinking. Then came the 60s and everything was turned upside down!

The 1960s and 1970s

The 1960s in Australia saw a rise in the consumption of prohibited drugs and a profound change in the demographics of drug use. For the first time in Australia’s history it was young people who were taking drugs. As Manderson describes, they were choosing to use amphetamines, barbiturates, cannabis and LSD:

The situation was further exacerbated with the arrival in Sydney in the late 1960s of large numbers of young, alienated United States soldiers on rest and recreational leave from service in the Vietnam War, who brought with them, attracted, consumed, sold, and gave away considerable quantities of cannabis and heroin. By any reckoning there was an explosion in the use of these substances and in related police activity.

The use by young people of new drugs of choice was an entirely new issue for the public and politicians to understand. As Manderson explains, the existing ways of understanding drug use did not fit:

Their use was intentional and therefore an immediate affront to the rule of law; it was recreational and therefore a challenge to medical dominance over drugs. Their drug use challenged medico-legal drug control … (and) effectively sidelined the disease model of addiction.(pp.145-6)

Marijuana in particular became a focus for political anger, fear and bigotry:

Marijuana was a convenient scapegoat for youthful libertarianism, non-conformity and anti-materialism – a ‘whole pattern of behaviour’ that the establishment feared. (p.148)

It was in the sixties that drug policy became focused on young people. The surveillance, suspicion and police intervention associated with drug use became targeted at young people for the first time.

With the exponential increase in drug use in the sixties, drug policy began to matter as a political entity within Australia. Manderson sees this as defining moment:

… politicians saw votes in it, bureaucracies saw power and prestige in its administration. Consensus was replaced by rivalry and as the profile of the debate was raised, the standard of debate was lowered. (p.141)

Manderson describes how it was in the sixties and seventies that drugs entered the realm of party politics and being ‘tough on drugs’ became a strategy for electoral support. As a consequence harsher and harsher laws were advocated and introduced. Whenever it was clear that current laws were not holding back the rising tide of illegal drug use the answer was to make conviction easier and so to convict more people. Manderson writes of some of the horrifying police raids that occurred on hippie communes in Queensland on the pretext of drug raids. Just as the Chinese were targeted in the nineteenth century, so young people with their links to alternative values became the targets of the 1960 and 70s:

Increasingly detailed and Draconian legislation had failed to prevent rising levels of illegal drug use, addiction and conviction … Particularly in relation to marijuana, the courts were treated to an unending procession of young people facing the stigma of a criminal conviction. Poor or middle-class, long term unemployed or ambitious university students, many of them regretted not their actions, but their consequences. (p.181)

Many current health professionals in senior positions were these same young people being arrested in the sixties for illicit drug use. How can these histories be helpful in creating possibilities for conversations with young people around current issues of drug use?

The recent past and possible futures

In the final chapters of his book, Desmond Manderson considers the 1980s and 1990s, and areas in which change may be possible in relation to Australian drug laws. He points to two separate developments that have ironically opened space for people to think differently about drugs. The first relates to the growth of organised crime and drug trafficking which the law has proved totally incapable of preventing.

The very fact that ‘the drug problem’ has become … a question of economics and power – rather than morality – has, perhaps, allowed more radical options to be considered. On the one hand, organised crime is seen to threaten the integrity of the whole legal and political system, and so the stakes are high enough to countenance radical reforms. On the other hand, the removal of drug use itself from the centre of public concern may mean that legalisation or decriminalisation are no longer the impossible options they once were. (p.206)

In South Australia, in the 1980s changes in legislation were advocated which increased penalties in relation to ‘dealers’ but reduced them in relation to users. Although Manderson points out that there is often no distinction between users and ‘dealers’, in some Australian states, laws have been enacted to encourage the treatment of drug users as an alternative to their imprisonment. In South Australia and the ACT substantial changes have also been made to the law in relation to marijuana smoking.

The second factor with Manderson believes may be significant is HIV/AIDS. Already the need to prevent the transmission of HIV has been an impetus for change. A whole new language and orientation to drug use has been created around the theme of ‘harm minimisation’. As Manderson describes:

The AIDS virus is … leading to legislation which permits previously illegal acts in the cause of advancing the health of users … (p.206)

Since Desmond Manderson wrote this book (in 1993) many new drugs have become available, and State and Federal Governments have uttered new war cries. A new generation of users has begun to try to find its way through the intricacies of the politics of drug use in this country. Are there histories which can make this journey more understandable? Are there ways for these histories to be passed on?

This book is one attempt to do so.

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