In the classic 1936 propaganda movie 'Reefer Madness', a good young man is seduced into the ways of "marihuana… the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America", and descends into a nightmare of crime, rape, murder and eventually madness. According to the movie, now a cult classic on the stoner circuit, 'Marihuana is... [a] drug – a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge... ending often in incurable insanity." Well, at least they got the last bit right. Over seventy years since the first wave of marijuana demonising, the “incurable insanity” has well and truly set in with politicians worldwide, and shows no sign of abating. Around 39 per cent of our population are reported to have tried the devil's weed, and crop sales are worth an estimated $5-8 billion Australia-wide. With the clash between official rhetoric and the cultural experience as wide as ever, a fresh wave of ‘Reefer Madness’ is sweeping our nation, fuelled by stories of mind-bending ‘hydro’ cannabis and drug war clichés that hide deeper-seated issues.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the sleepy hippie town of Nimbin, in the Lismore Shire of NSW’s North Coast. Walk up and down Cullen Street in Nimbin on any day of the week and you’re sure to be asked if you need any weed, mull, pot, green, ganja, smoke, marijuana or any of the other colourful names the most prolific cannabis plant is know by. The green dollar is what supports all the businesses here and it's the foundation of the economy. Local traders estimate half a million tourists come to the town each year, drawn by the scent of marijuana. But while Nimbin might be Australia’s answer to Amsterdam, it’s also in all-round Aussie heartland, half redneck and half hippie, or that blurring line between the two cultures you have to expect after a generation of interbreeding. The footy’s on in the pub and the Tabaret’s doing a roaring trade, about equal to the Hemp Bar. Bearded blokes with big potbellies in t-shirts and thongs chat to weatherbeaten farmers in their utes as Japanese and European backpackers in tie-died gear and big bloodshot eyes wander by. It’s just another country town – that happens to grow and smoke dope.
And despite 25 years of sustained cannabis use, I can’t see any of the psychotic casualties that the propaganda films warn about. Okay, there’s a wizened old dude with no front teeth and a long elven beard walking by, a cheerful relic from the Rainbow Days of the 1970s when Nimbin was overrun by idealistic hippies from Sydney hosting the 1972 Aquarius Festival. The alternative culture that settled here considers cannabis to be a sacrament. It’s a hardy plant to cultivate and grow, and a whole generation of hippie farmers soon discovered it could generate a cashflow to make them happy, healthy and self-sustainable. But local outrage and conservative drug laws quickly saw the media popularise the town as a drug culture, which drew people to the town for drugs and helped fulfil the negative stereotype.
To combat this Nimbin also became home to the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) movement and the Hemp Embassy, the stoned nerve centre for this idealogical war, established in 1992 to promote drug law reform. Today the Hemp Embassy is a rainbow-trimmed wooden building with a hand-painted mural above the street level, where most mainstream businesses have their logo. Underneath an Egyptian Eye of Horus in a rainbow pyramid, a green hemp goddess holds a perfectly rolled joint, standing on a sign, which reads “Holy Smoke”. At exactly the same level as the rainbow eye in the pyramid hangs the black lens of a surveillance camera, conspicuously attached to an eight metre long metal pole on a forty-five degree angle. Directly under its gaze this morning there’s a scruffy guy in his 40s in an orange jacket and green army camo pants nonchalantly dipping into his bag of weed spread out on the sidewalk and doing a deal for a passing customer.
He’s underneath one of six surveillance cameras monitoring the action and piping the footage to the police station 500 metres away, to a security room where a watchman presumably looks on in bored familiarity at the largest and most sustained act of civil disobedience in Australia by the most surveilled town in the nation. If the cameras are any indication, Nimbin could well be ground zero for the war on marijuana currently being zealously waged by the NSW government, like so many worldwide. Since the 1961 United Nations Convention, which prohibited cannabis cultivation, this war on nature and those who use the cannabis plant has cost untold billions of dollars and made criminals of millions of people. The convention is policed by the International Narcotics Control Board who regularly advise and stir up regional and international governments on the issue.
In 1998 the Control Board urged signatory nations, including Australia, to “devise strategies for the attempted elimination of cannabis use within 10 years”. In June, 2006 Morris Iemma’s NSW state government seemed to comply when it introduced legislation first mooted in 1999 to create a separate offence for the indoor cultivation of hydroponic or ‘hydro’ marijuana, which they claim is up to seven times more potent than organically grown ‘bush buds’, with further allegations that it has a direct link to mental illness. Penalties and fines of between $395,000 and $550,000 or 15 years imprisonment for the cultivation of commercial quantities of indoor-grown drug plants are now in force. NSW Premier Iemma quotes “Canadian research” for his claims, which are unsubstantiated and refuted by academic and health professionals, as well as growers and users themselves.
“The THC might be slightly higher today than 20 years ago due to various strains, but it's only a few percentage points stronger,” says Kog, a friendly, beer-bellied local in his 60s with red cheeks, a greying ZZ Top beard and long curly grey hair. “The scare campaign for hydro weed just isn't true. This whole Prohibition thing's based on fear. The police try to get the fear into you. What I'm on about lately is turning that fear around and showing no fear under any circumstances. Grow your plants with love and have no fear. No fear. If you do that, you'll beat them. “
Kog has that righteous look of a man who stands by his convictions, even if they lead to the wrong side of the law. He’s been growing pot for over 24 years, but after being busted and serving time in jail 12 years ago he became a spokesperson for the legalising marijuana movement. He’s recently released a book and DVD called Marijuana: A Grower's Lot, to help other people learn how to become sustainable growing the cannabis staple crop.
“I'm basically a farmer, and the crop I grow is green. It's a simple process, you've just got to take a seed and plant it. I've tried growing commercial quantities of potatoes, carrots, cabbages – I used to be an organic vegetable grower, I tried all that and the only thing worth growing is marijuana (laughs). By a mile. I've never made a fortune, but I do earn $20-30,000 a year. It pays the bills and I live pretty simple. I have the farm with the wife and four kids, and it's enabled me to survive. And there's a lot of people just like me. The majority of people I met in jail were in there like me, for growing pot. We're all prisoners of war.”
Speaking of war, there’s oil in those there hills, but it’s hemp oil. At a time when other Aussie farmers are being hard hit by climate change and other pressures, these grassroots success stories only hit the headlines when they're busted and their crops seized and burnt in the ongoing War on Drugs that fuels an extremely profitable black market economy. It's all about supply and demand, and according to research the business of marijuana is roughly twice the size of the wine industry and second only to beer as Australia’s favourite consumable.
A 2006 study by the University of Western Australia’s Business School by Professor Kenneth Clements and co-author Xueyan Zaho of Monash University examined price variations for marijuana around the country, bulk buying and expected revenues if governments could tax the plant. They found that the average annual household spending on marijuana was $758 per household per year, or near $8 billion dollars annually Australia-wide, all of it funneled into the black market economy that prohibition creates and sustains. But if it was legalised, and grown like any other staple crop, like tomatoes, it would be worth the same – about $5.99 a kilo instead of somewhere between $3000-5000 kilo as it is now, and the bottom would drop out of the market.
“The Australian hydroponic industry is the biggest per capita in the world, and we have the highest amount of [cannabis] users per capita in the world,” says Tim Wells, editor of the new cannabis magazine Stickypoint. “There's a lot of growers out there and a lot of stigmas and stereotypes which come with it.” One of the stigmas politicians and the media help perpetuate is that or large-scale organised crime. Yet most of the millions of cannabis users are everyday people forced into criminality by archaic laws that trace their origins back to the 1930s propaganda campaigns designed to oust marijuana and hemp production in the US, which only became illegal with the marihuana tax act of 1937.
Some of these so-called criminals are people who have applied for and are still waiting to use marijuana for health reasons. Rock, a dreadlocked local medical marijuana activist, suffers from constant migraines and other pain resulting from an accident he had several years ago. “I believe in cannabis and I'm standing up for it because it works for me. It might not work for everyone but it does for me,” Rock says, and [the NSW government] is interfering with my medical rights. It's my right to choose.”
There are provisions for the use of medical marijuana to relieve pain for approved patients, but the deck is well and truly stacked against anyone implementing the provisions, Rock says. “[The provision] is so hard to find, so buried, and such a money-spinner plot. It's all about money. If you're a volunteer organisation it's only $15 to apply for a cannabis license, $55 for an institution, and a whopping $495 for an individual. That’s just for the application, though, there’s no guarantee your application will be approved.” Official figures of how many people then succeed in their requests for legal marijuana medication are still unclear.
“Think of how much it costs them to bust people,” Rock tells me. “They can spend millions of dollars but you can't stop people getting high no matter how hard you try. Prohibition doesn't work – we know that. It didn't work in America and it's not going to work here.”
John Kayes, the recently elected Greens member of the NSW parliament (Upper House), agrees. ““The War on Drugs is a failure,” he says, “and its prohibition is destroying our society.”
Then why, one must ask, after all these decades, is marijuana still illegal? Cui Bono – who profits? Not the users who risk arrest and stigma at worst, and paying artificially inflated prices to a black market economy at best. As has been mooted many times before, governments of the world could tax cannabis, like cigarettes, but instead they’re going down the prohibition path in earnest, despite seventy years of unsuccessful banning and mounting evidence of the ease of use of hemp for fuel, fibre, food, medicine and recreation.
Tim Wells from Stickypoint magazine says that Australia's far worse than the US with it's drug war at the moment, where “marijuana is decriminalised in around 16 states in the US, with upwards of 70,000 medicinal permits given out in California, and more states getting on board every day. Europe is extremely liberal towards it, as is Canada. Yet here in Australia we're stuck in the dino-ages with government messages parroting the Ainslinger reports from the 1930s,” Wells says.
Steve Bolt is a Lismore solicitor and the unofficial lawyer for the Nimbin Hemp Embassy. He’s also the author of ‘Rough Deal: A Plain English Guide to Drug Laws in New South Wales’, an indispensable source of information on the sweeping drug law changes and how they affect drug users. He says that the NSW North Coast region is by far the highest in Australia for [marijuana] drug busts. “But despite that, the general population is probably not aware that [prohibition] is really not working. The demand is too high and it's not going to go away, and all you do is influence how people use drugs, normally in a negative way, rather than stopping them using drugs at all. If you're going to use, you're going to use.”
NSW has invested millions into the prohibition approach, and one of it’s new tactics is the controversial saliva-testing drug bus which tracks for “the presence of [cannabis], not [evidence] that you’re intoxicated,” says Associate Professor Dr Michael Dawson, the head of the University of Technology, Sydney’s Department of Chemistry, Materials and Forensic Science. “This is an unjust and unfair piece of legislation,” Dr Dawson says. Not only that, it doesn’t always work. Out of hundreds of samples taken at one of the drug bus’s few outings, the Byron Bay Blues Festival, there were only three test positives. The INTRA outreach drug service later field-tested smokers with the new THC-breathalyser devices that cost $40 per initial test, and had repeated cases where a negative result was returned by people that had smoked, and a few cases where a false positive was returned by people that didn’t.
“I don't think you have a chance of fighting it legally,” says Bolt, and as a solicitor he should know. “I think your only chance is fighting it politically and through civil disobedience. But civil disobedience is a tool of last resort. Unless you've got the political climate right and you're sure that you're not going to be hung out to dry, it's something you've got to think about very, very carefully.”
NSW State Greens MP John Kaye agrees. "I think we have a very long way to go in terms of reforming cannabis laws in NSW. And I think freedom of speech always plays an important role. I can't think of any major gain we have made in the last two hundred years that's been made directly by politicians... First and foremost you need to build a groundswell. You need to educate the community on the issue of cannabis. We're talking a lot more to the community basically so we can overcome the cannabis hysteria that's going on, particularly in the outer suburbs in places like Sydney.
“Our first task is to undermine the propaganda that's coming out of the right wing that says if their kid smokes a joint he's going to go psycho. We've got to get over that. Secondly, we've got to get over the idea that the way to deal with the problem associated with all of these drugs is to have tougher law and order penalties. We have strong evidence that both of those things are not true. And we need to get that evidence out there and make it part of the common conversation. At the same time we're challenging the law, and we need to work out clever ways to challenge this so people don't end up going to jail, but we need to be challenging these laws.”
Which is where the infamous Nimbin Mardi Grass festival comes in. The Nimbin ‘Mardi Grass and Cannabis Law Reform Rally 2007’ celebrates fifteen years of Australian civil disobedience that can only happen when a community rallies round what it believes in. “The Hemp Embassy was started in 1992 by a guy called Bob Hopkins, who initiated Mardi Grass, too, after a particularly bad year of police harassment,” says Michael Balderstone, the grey-bearded spokesperson for the Hemp Embassy and the unofficial ‘mayor’ of Nimbin.
We’re out on the downstairs back verandah of the Hemp Embassy as he rolls a lunchtime joint, surrounded by Salty, the Embassy webmaster, Andrew Kavasilas, hemp activist and author of ‘Medical Uses of Cannabis – Information for Medical Practitioners’ and a few of the other local boys all chillin’ with Bob Dylan one fine weekday afternoon.
“The first Mardi Grass was such a success residents vowed to do it every year till the laws change," Michael says with a youthful exuberance, looking like a bush Santa Claus. “It's a real unique scene here, clearly. We're empowered and I don't think we realise it. People have been on a long, strong journey to get here [to Nimbin]. And throwing a bunch of pot smokers all together... we'll, were all criminalised. But we've got the numbers in the town now.”
They sure do. On the Sunday of the annual May Mardi Grass festival, as six boys in blue look on from the front of the cop shop with tight grimaces, arms folded aggressively, the Plantem, Nimbin’s very own cannabis-powered superhero walks by in his green longjohns with a group of local children carrying the emblem of the Hemp revolution, the Giant Joint. Dozens of Nimbin women, and a few blokes dressed as green-hued Ganga Faeries, amass around peace flags, all of them wailing like banshees to celebrate the humble marijuana plant.
As is the custom, the parade is led by the Ganga Faerie Queen, this time a seven-and-a half-months pregnant local woman who represents the re-birth of the seasons – and “perpetuation of the movement to bring about cannabis law reform”. It feels like a medieval harvest festival as the Big Joint takes off down the main street of Nimbin, flanked with thousands of happy, stoned revelers and locals either side. Take a deep breath: this Nimbin strain of reefer madness is just as infectious as those of the politicians, but it’s a lot more fun.
first published in Australian Penthouse, August 2007
photos: Rak Razam