There are few substances in the world to have as many nicknames as marijuana. Only heroin even comes close. But it is one of Mary Jane’s many noms du crime that concerns us here today. In some parts of the world, that most nearly legal of all illegal drugs is known as Sassafras. Australia, for the most part, is not one of them.

But in the late nineteenth century, two Americans saw a way to an easy fortune – much easier than working the goldfields, and less dangerous too. They planted large quantities of marijuana in the area that they nicknamed Sassafras Gully, and the plants grew well. The Americans (who went to no small trouble to hide their identities – and were not unsuccessful in this goal, as the current text clearly attests), developed a thriving business, with runners carrying their product far afield, to miners in Ballarat, whalers in Port Fairy and farmers in Bairnsdale alike. Their income allowed them to bribe the majority of the local constables, keeping news of their enterprise from reaching higher than the local captain.

But one man objected to this. Constable William Slicington was young and naive at the time, and believed in the law above all. Ordered by his superiors not to investigate or arrest the Americans or their employees, Slicington found a loophole. He had not been forbidden to destroy their product – and in an area as prone to bushfires as the Dandenongs are, who would suspect a carefully targeted fire? Slicington had no doubt that the Americans would mobilise quickly enough to prevent any collateral damage, but he could at least throw a flaming spanner into their works.

Slicington, in his naivete, had overlooked one thing: the narcotic properties that the vast amount of smoke generated would possess. And unfortunately for him, he was trapped by the blaze in a location that meant he would inhale more that smoke than anyone else. Slicington, or Mad Bill as his fellow coppers now called him, was never quite the same again, and was shortly pensioned out of the police force into a nice little sinecure as postmaster of nearby Kilsyth, in the hope that the lowered stress would restore his sanity.

The fires had drawn the attention of the authorities, who now wondered why this area was called Sassafras. In response, careful efforts were made to transplant native sassafras trees to the area, and they thrived as much as their illegal predecessors had done. The Americans receded, with their ill-gotten fortune, into the mists of local history, but the name stuck.

Suburbs near Sassafras:

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