Inside Australia's pot paradise

The village of Nimbin is the epicentre of Australia's marijuana legalisation movement.


    Nimbin, Australia - Marijuana has been illegal in Australia for the past 75 years. It remains just as illegal today as it was in March 1993, when residents in the village of Nimbin, New South Wales erupted in protest.

    The uprising - which saw locals shelling the police station with eggs - was a reaction to the frequent raids and arrests of local dealers during the 1980s and early 1990s. 

    Only two months later, on May 1, 1993, the people of Nimbin held a more peaceful rally, which became known as the inaugural "Mardigrass Protestival". For the past 22 years Nimbin's "Hemp Embassy", the headquarters of the Hemp ("Help End Marijuana Prohibition") Party, along with supporters from around the world have campaigned for cannabis law reform.

    "It's not a festival, it's not a protest, it's a gathering," said Gary Big Bong, a local activist, while enjoying a puff of the devil's lettuce. The Hemp Party, a small Australian political group, will consider Mardigrass to be a festival only after marijuana is legalised.

    Many strangers have come to visit Nimbin, a counterculturally oriented village about 180km south of Brisbane, and some have never left. Those who stay often consider themselves to be "marijuana refugees", seeking asylum from the norms of mainstream society. While relaxing on the back porch of the Hemp Embassy, Michael Balderstone, the Hemp Party's leader, said: "I reckon Nimbin is a refugee camp for the war on drugs."

    Hippy haven

    The decline of the dairy and agricultural industry caused Nimbin's population to plummet from more than 6,000 in the 1960s down to 450 in 2011. The Aquarius festival in 1973 brought many hippies to the village, which is now known for sustainable living, alternative lifestyles, and its marijuana counterculture. 

    People & Power - Marijuana Wars - Part one

    Marijuana activists argue that the prohibition of cannabis is not only socially immoral, it's also fiscally irresponsible. Nimbin's Hemp Party has taken note of legal reforms in the United States, adopting the slogan "Colorado Dreaming". Colorado became the first US state to legalise recreational marijuana sales on January 1, 2014, marking the start of the best year in recent history for proponents of cannabis law reform.

    With an apparent shift in momentum, politicians everywhere are reconsidering the practicality of their region's marijuana laws. Jason Woodforth, Liberal National MP for Nudgee, Queensland, announced to the crowd during the concluding ceremonies of Mardigrass, "My drug of choice may be a glass of wine or a beer, so why should I deny you your drug of choice?" 

    Nimbin's Hemp Party is undoubtedly driven in its goal to reform cannabis law. But at times, they seem more disorganised than two hamsters running in the opposite direction on a wheel. This could hinder their ability to maintain a professional and credible image in the eyes of the political opposition.

    The 'Mardigrass' festival

    The characters of Nimbin can be described as, in the most gracious and respectful way possible, chaotic. The ambiance surrounding the village, especially during Mardigrass, is surreal. "Ganja Faeries" dance in the street, leashed goats and stray chickens wander among the crowd, while "Jungle Patrol" event volunteers maintain the peace. Four police officers make their way to the Hemp Embassy to compete in the annual "Tug of Peace" with Nimbin's cannabis activists, "The Polite Force".

    Sergeant Dave Longfield, a public order tactical adviser for the Richmond Local Area Command, said heavy use of alcohol often creates more problems than marijuana.

    "Over the past three to four years, our focus has shifted from illegal drug use - and although we are still concerned about that, of course, our focus has changed somewhat to alcohol-related crime, alcohol-related violence, and antisocial behaviour as a result of alcohol consumption." 

    "In our experience, people who overindulge in alcohol tend to cause more drama than people who overindulge in illegal drugs." 

    As the loudspeaker alerts patrons of the upcoming "Hemp Olympix" events in Sativa Stadium, a joint-rolling competition gets under way in the town hall - featuring blindfolded rolling, speed rolling and "creative rolling" events. 

    At 4:20pm on Mardigrass Eve, surrounded by freshly growing marijuana in the garden, Debbie Guest - a civil celebrant licensed to conduct weddings - began reading passages for Nimbin's first legally sanctioned Ganja Wedding. "Relationships are forever changing, and Johnny Ganja and Aiti's union grows and blossoms like a marijuana plant, forever changing."

    Hundreds of colourful guests laughed, and some who just happened to be passing by suddenly found themselves part of a special celebration. Johnny shouts "Viva Marijuana!" and "Free the Weed!" as if to express his excitement to spend the rest of his life not only with his bride, but also with his plant. As Johnny and Aiti shared moments of reflection through smoke, this unique and moving ceremony brought tears to witnessing eyes.

    Medicinal use

    At this point, 21 US states and the District of Columbia have legalised the use of medicinal marijuana. Here in Australia, Tony "Mullaway" Bower has created and grown, albeit illegally, a strain of marijuana known as "Cleverman". He claims that this strain helps young children who suffer from epileptic seizures, among other disorders. Some doctors, patients and their families believe that Mullaway's cannabis tincture, taken orally, is nothing short of a miracle cure for epilepsy.

    Eight-year-old Tara O'Connell, from Mia Mia, Victoria, suffered from chronic epilepsy, often having as many as 60 seizures a day. In December 2012, after trying 17 different pharmaceutical medications - none of which were successful - the O'Connells were informed that Tara had 12 to 24 months left to live.

    People and Power - Marijuana Wars - Part two

    Although sceptical, Tara's parents began administering Mullaway's cannabis oil. Tara adjusted to the medicine quickly, suffering only one seizure between February 10 and April 3, 2013. They say she hasn't suffered a single seizure since. 

    Dr Paul Carter has been Tara's general practitioner for the past five years. "I would regard it as a tragedy if we had to go back to conventional treatment for Tara," he said. "I'm very much hoping there will be an ongoing supply, and quite frankly, I think everybody would be vastly more comfortable if it was above-board or legal." 

    But the law has not looked kindly on Mullaway's actions, and in 2012, he was charged with being a supplier after police seized 200 plants from his property. He later received a one-year prison sentence. Following a successful appeal, he was released after serving six weeks.

    Although the cannabis oil seems to work for the O'Connells, not everyone is sanguine on medical marijuana's effectiveness.

    "These are self-medicating people using an uncontrolled substance derived from their own anecdotal evidence," said Shane Varcoe, the director of Dalgarno Institute, a drug and alcohol education coalition. "Is this something we want to unleash on the population?" 

    In a short statement issued from the office of Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, a spokesperson illustrated the government's position on medicinal cannabis. "Decriminalisation of personal use of cannabis where there are clear compassionate circumstances is an option which State and Territory Governments can pursue under their respective drugs and poisons control legislation should they choose to do so."

    Supporters of legalising marijuana hope to replicate the success of their peers in Colorado, and Nimbin's Hemp Embassy continues to lead the movement. The smoke may never clear, but legal reform in Australia could give new meaning to Mardigrass. A taboo Protestival today could become a legitimate festival tomorrow. Only time will tell.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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