Hunter Valley cannabis infestation

Hunter Valley cannabis infestation

. At its peak, the infestation covered about thirty square kilometres. It took nine years for the New South Wales government to eradicate it.


The Hunter Valley is a fertile agricultural region situated on the east coast of Australia, approximately 160 kilometres north of Sydney. Due to a mild climate, abundance of water and alluvial soils, the area is well known for its winegrape production, timber getting and dairy cattle and chicken meat and egg industries. The Hunter River flows through Singleton, and empties into the Tasman Sea at the city of Newcastle.

In the spring and summer of 1963, local farmers noticed a hitherto unknown exotic weed growing in river banks, along creeks, and near irrigation channels. They contacted the New South Wales Department of Agriculture and Fisheries. The Department dispatched field officers to the affected areas, who identified the plant as "cannabis sativa". The plant was listed as a noxious weed, which required it to be eradicated under New South Wales law. It was also listed as a prohibited drug.

The discovery initially created a sensation in the press. One Sydney newspaper reported the find under the headline “Love Drug found in the Hunter Valley”. The discovery aroused some interest in the fledgling bohemian community, while local dairy farmers demanded something be done about the problem to protect their valuable pasture lands. The New South Wales Department of Agriculture and Fisheries reported the discovery to the New South Wales Police Force. The local chief of police in the Hunter Valley publicly declared that the infestation would be eradicated “within six to eight weeks”. It took nine years.


The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and Police Force decided to establish a joint task force of officers to begin an eradication program on a "search and destroy" basis. At first, the plants were pulled by hand and then burned. With the reappearance of the freely seeding cannabis in 1964, hand pulling was no longer a viable option on its own. Herbicide control was then introduced on an "ad hoc" basis during the mid-summer months. At the height of the infestation, cannabis covered some thirty square kilometres of the Hunter Valley along 63 kilometres of the Hunter River downstream from Singleton. Infestations ranged from small clumps of plants, to dense fields of cannabis ranging in size of up to eight hectares.

In April and May of each year of the infestation, small but determined bands of devotees of marijuana evaded detection by police and land owners as they harvested the flowering tops of the plants. Much of the resulting cannabis head was then transported to Sydney, where it was dried and cured and illegally distributed.

Eventually, it was decided to use various commercially available preparations of the powerful, but highly toxic, herbicide 2,4-D to control the outbreak. Officers using knapsack sprays were deployed to deal with smaller infestations, while large areas of cannabis were sprayed with 2,4-D from small crop dusting aircraft. By 1971, only a small number of plants were found by the regular summer patrols of field officers, that could easily be pulled by hand. The eradication of the infestation was finally declared successful in 1972.

The cause of the infestation has never been positively identified. One theory suggests that the cause was the sluicing of waste products from chicken farms in the area which were using imported chicken feed containing a small proportion of cannabis seed which was then washed into the Hunter River and its tributaries. Another theory suggests that some seed was deliberately planted by United States Military personnel who were stationed at the Singleton Australian Army Base.

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