Cultivating Ethnobotanical Plants: The Law, Human rights and Research in Australia

The Entheogenesis Australis conferences and other educational activities cover a broad variety of topics from a position which seeks to improve the well-being of humankind and the natural world. There are many thousands of botanical species that are enjoyable to grow and which have a long and rich cultural history of human engagement. The United Nations recognises the traditional knowledge of first peoples and religious groups with a heritage of plant use, respecting their human rights and religious freedoms when it comes to the ritual and traditional use of medicinal plants. Many ethnobotanical plants offer real medicinal and therapeutic value and are helping save lives, and are worthy of discussion and preservation. EGA aims to provide educational material that is of cultural, botanical, scientific and public benefit.

The majority of ethnobotanical plants are not illegal to grow and share in Australia; in fact, many are common herbs, ornamentals and bush foods and grow in gardens across the nation. However, there are some plants and related compounds that are controlled for personal cultivation and require the appropriate licences before they can be grown or supplied. Examples of these controlled plants are tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), opium poppies (Papaver somniferum), cannabis (Cannabis sativa) and coca plants (Erythroxylum coca). Further to this there are compounds that can be extracted from plants and fungi that one would need a licence or permit to use or administer, for example, as a medication (e.g. cannabis-based treatment of epilepsy or opium for pain relief) or for use in a research environment (e.g. psilocybin based treatment for anxiety). There are provisions within the law in Australia where all of the above examples could be cultivated or used legally for the benefit of society.

It is also very important to note, that while many plants can have medicinal applications, there are also some plants (ethnobotanical or otherwise) that contain both therapeutic and harmful compounds (e.g. plants from the Brugmansia genus). There is a toxicological threshold point of a given compound where too much of a particular compound can turn from a therapeutic amount to a potentially harmful amount. It is important that all plants can be researched. Handling them with care and respect, so that they may be utilised appropriately in the garden or in a medical context.

EGA does not condone, encourage or engage in illegal activity. EGA takes a critical and educational approach when it comes to discussion topics related to the use and misuse of pharmacologically active compounds. EGA supports the harm reduction model and seeks to provide information that would reduce harms associated with the use of pharmacologically active compounds. Laws and policy will vary from state to state (and territory), and we encourage the public to research the laws relating to ethnobotanical plants and related compounds and their applications.

Please consider the following two quotes, one about the value of ethnobotanical plants, human health and the natural environment from the Ecology Society of America and a second from the United Nations on the human rights of Indigenous people when it comes to using traditional plant medicines:

‘Eighty percent of the world's population relies upon natural medicinal products. Of the top 150 prescription drugs used in the U.S., 118 originate from natural sources: 74 percent from plants, 18 percent from fungi, 5 percent from bacteria, and 3 percent from one vertebrate (snake species). Nine of the top 10 drugs originate from natural plant products.’ (Ecology Society of America, 1997)

'Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals. Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services.’ (United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2008, Article 24, Section 1).

Enjoy safe, informed and happy gardening.