While the rest of the world is beginning to recognize the medicinal effects of cannabis, the widely known cannabis capital of Australia is, bewilderingly, doing exactly the opposite. For starters, cannabis is now legal in the American state of California. This has seen many cannabis stores opening throughout the state, and some people have even opted to grow their own cannabis plants at home too.
The Nimbin Drug Culture
When you think of cannabis, inevitably, Nimbin comes to mind. While it was once a farming village that struggled to survive, it is now a booming town that specializes in an alternative lifestyle. This change came about when the village was selected to host the 1973 Aquarius Festival which celebrated creativity and sustainability. This festival also likened many of the attendees to the idea of living in Nimbin, and unsurprisingly, drug culture developed as a result of hippies and artists coming to live together.
Naturally, the question is, how does Nimbin sustain this drug culture in a country that has yet to legalize the recreational use of drugs?
Well, it actually doesn’t.
The drug culture in Nimbin survives purely on the unspoken consensus between the townspeople and Australian authorities that illegal drug dealings will be glossed over and unpunished. Through this arrangement, Nimbin has managed to continuously build up and maintain its reputation as the ultimate Australian black market for pot.
But Nimbin is more than just having fun and going wild with cannabis. For a community as small as this, Nimbin is constantly in the frontlines of spreading education about the drug, environmental initiatives and advocating for its medicinal properties. Every year, the town holds the MardiGrass festival, one that calls for a cannabis law reform while educating people on its various uses and celebrates the arts.
Furthermore, in May 2019, political discussions toward legalizing the recreational use and personal possession of cannabis took place in Canberra. It seemed that the chances of this piece of legislation being passed were high, but what once seemed to be in their favor took a turn for the opposite with no clear reason, leaving locals confused.
One day before the 2019 MardiGrass Festival, the New South Wales police force raided the Nimbin Hemp Embassy, seizing 7.5 kilograms of cannabis and approximately 500 pre-rolled cannabis joints.
Embassy President Michael Balderstone speculated that the raid was carried out the way it was to hinder the festival. According to him, the embassy was surrounded by the Public Order and Riot Squad over the weekend. They showed up out of the blue, search warrant in hand, and spent three to four hours scouring the embassy. Festival volunteers who were present had to be investigated by sniffer dogs.
What was the goal of conducting the raid?
According to President Balderstone, the raid had not affected the spirit of the festival. The focal source of confusion is the fact that the police have always known that they would not be able to prevent locals from using cannabis. Why then, knowing their efforts were unlikely to bear any fruit, would they raid the embassy the way they did?
There’s a bigger issue at hand than the raid that’s affecting the attendance rate of the festival, and that is the roadside drug testing being carried out. These roadside tests don’t test the driver for signs of impairment. Rather, they test for trace amounts of substances of cannabis in the driver. What locals are afraid of is being tested positive for cannabis days after they use it. In several past cases, drivers were tested positive for cannabis and sent to court for drug driving. If they failed to appear in court, their driving license was immediately revoked.
The resulting effect on locals is the growing fear of driving. Since the MardiGrass Festival is a prime location for carrying out these roadside tests, fewer people have been attending the festival. What’s more, the festival is held “in the middle of nowhere,” said President Balderstone, so the police tend to surround the venue, blocking all roads, entrances, and exits to the venue. It becomes a colossal effort, with high risks, for attendees to get through the barrier and attend the festival.
It’s been a long fight
Authorities raiding the embassy may have come as a shock, but it’s hardly the first time locals have experienced this. In recent years, authorities have been amping up efforts in cracking down on the cannabis black market in Nimbin. For instance, on April Fool’s Day in 2008, an army of 50 policemen raided the Nimbin Hemp Embassy and the Nimbin Museum. Eight people were arrested and four kilograms of the drug were seized. In 2014, the 9/11 raids were carried out on the Oasis Cafe and Perception Bookshop.
In 2016, the police dealt with the Lane Boys. They were a group of young men who took it upon themselves to prevent heavier drugs from seeping into the local scene. They also sold organic cannabis in Rainbow Lane. In June of 2016, six search warrants were ordered upon Nimbin and Lismore, arresting eleven of the Lane Boys. The Lane Boys were held in high regard by the people of Nimbin, and when 2017 saw these eleven being found guilty for supplying cannabis, locals were left in bewilderment and disbelief.
Nine months after this incident, sniffer dog operations continued, and Nimbin saw seven more people arrested. This occurred just a week before the 2018 MardiGrass Festival.
Needless to say, Nimbin’s fight for the legalization of cannabis has been a long-drawn-out battle. Considering all the effort that the locals have put into educating the world about cannabis, it’s frustrating for them, who are finding it increasingly harder to use cannabis.
In President Balderstone’s words, “It’s pretty bloody ironic when the rest of the world is waking up to it being a medicine.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Nimbin’s reputation as a cannabis capital is at stake, and the celebrated drug culture it has sustained so far is heading towards rocky terrain.