Heroin in 1950s Australia – cough, cough

In 1950, cough mixture with heroin as an additive was available from chemists with or without prescription, depending on the state where you lived. This advertisement appeared in the Hobart Mercury on 1 June. The mixture contained two grams of lobelia and a twelfth of a gram of heroin per fluid ounce.

In 1952, on what might perhaps be called slender evidence, a Senator from Western Australia sent the hares running with her claims that teenage girls were getting high on a cough mixture containing heroin.

The Mercury – 15 November 1952

The following day in Perth’s Sunday Times – 16 Nov 1952:

Senator Agnes Robertson said yesterday that the evidence she had that metropolitan school girls were drinking cough mixture to get a “lift” from heroin was provided by a small girl 18 months ago. This girl had told her that she had seen others drinking what she thought was cough mixture.

Sen. Robertson agreed that the girl could have been mistaken in what she saw but her evidence could not be substantiated because she was no longer in WA. Although Sen. Robertson also agreed that her allegations must have caused serious concern to parents of schoolgirls, she refused to name the school concerned. She said that since she had first been told of heroin addiction by Perth school girls 18 months ago, she had made searching inquiries but had failed to uncover any other cases.

When told that the BMA had expressed surprise at her charges Sen. Robertson said that doctors were not in full possession of information relating to the taking of drugs.

Principals of several leading girls’ schools said yesterday that they had never discovered a case of their pupils drinking cough mixture to obtain heroin. Education Director Dr T. L. Robertson said he thought the suggestion was ridiculous.

Pharmaceutical Guild president G. H. Dallimore said there were no patent medicines on sale in WA containing heroin. In 25 years’ experience, as a chemist he had not come in contact with any girls buying cough mixture to get a kick. A BMA spokesman said last night the ordinary citizen could not get mixtures containing heroin without a doctor’s prescription. Even in these cases the other ingredients would probably make a person sick if an overdose were taken to get a heroin reaction.

He added: “There is something about the Australian makeup as far as kids are concerned, which makes it very doubtful whether they would adopt the American teenagers’ practice of getting a lift from such methods.”

Despite the phasing-in of prescription-only medications and mixtures across various states, Australia still led the world in the ‘consumption’ of heroin. The Mail (Adelaide) – 6 December 1952

By 1954, New South Wales was planning to ban heroin use “when existing stocks were almost exhausted” (Premier Cahill). An interesting application of ‘waste not want not’. Sydney Morning Herald – 23 June 1954

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Post-script: In 1956 after her re-election to the Senate, The Australian Women’s Weekly of 14 March ran a feature article on Senator Agnes Robertson.


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