Origins of the Nimbin Mardi Grass
unique. Once a sacred initiation site for the Bundjalung tribe, it was originally
"settled" by white Europeans in the very late 19th Century. Basically that
means we clear-felled as much of the forest as we possibly could, fenced it off from
the local Kooris and proceeded to wipe out any of them that objected to being
uprooted, brain-washed and totally cut off from their traditional lands and way of
life. It's a familiar story.
Within a couple of decades
the white guys had pretty much run out of trees and so they started looking around
for a NEW way to turn a buck. Sticking a whole bunch of heavy-footed European cows
on the recently cleared slopes seemed like a good idea at the time, and so within
ANOTHER few decades the once pristine forests surrounding this area had been
transformed into an expanse of denuded, eroding cow pastures. Meanwhile the arse was
busily dropping out of the international market for Australian meat and dairy
By 1973, Nimbin was almost
a ghost town. Luckily for the local real estate agents, a bunch of long haired
student radicals from the Australian Union of Students arrived seeking a site for a
national student counter culture life style event called the Aquarius Festival. They
had taken a left turn at Mullumbimby, chose Nimbin promising the village residents
that Aquarius would "recycle the town".
Cut to 1993 - the same
deserted dairy town has been transformed. The building and shop fronts are a garish
yet somehow compelling collage of full blown psychedelia and traditional Bundjalung
art. There's more cafes, craft shops and backpackers than you can wave a traveller's
cheque at and the stinky sweet smell of ganja is positively enveloping the street.
This definitely AINT Byron Bay.
Down the centre of the main
drag of this tiny, tripped out tourist town, there's a huge throng of people,
laughing, drumming, chanting, DANCING towards the local cop shop. Dozens of them are
helping to carry a huge smoking joint with "Let It Grow!" painted in 4
foot high letters on the side. Others are holding banners and placards calling for
change - an end to drug prohibition, the legalisation of cannabis, an end to the drug war.
Many are openly smoking pot
as they drum, sing and rhumba their way towards the suddenly vacant-looking police
station. One dude is on stilts, wearing a huge cardboard helicopter he's made in
mockery of the annual pot raids that Nimbin has suffered for more than a decade.
Paradoxically, not one person looks angry.
What the fuck is happening
Why, it's the first annual
"Let It Grow!" Mardi Grass Fiesta and drug law reform rally. A thousand
local "alternatives" (the politically correct way to say
"hippies") finally spitting the dummy, coming out of the closet and in true
60s in-your-face street theatre style pointing out to the jaded apathetic mainstream
that the drug wars just aren't working.
That night on the national
news the Australian general public was faced with the bizarre spectacle of a bunch
of aging hippies, their off-spring and an ever-growing army of young and old
recruits joyously breaking the cannabis laws en masse and demanding a change to the
drug laws. Not only has the war on drugs left a deep and unpleasant impression on
our idyllic, lotus-munching existence (the hippies seemed to be saying) but these
days it's seriously fucking with YOUR way of life as well.
Ever since the '73 Aquarius
Festival, Nimbin has had a strong tradition of civil disobedience of the drug laws.
The cops tried to bust someone for pot in the middle of the festival, but were
quickly (and peacefully) overpowered by the crowd and the "criminal"
disappeared into the seething hairy melee. This was nothing new at the time. The
same kind of spontaneous rebellion had happened at the Sunbury rock festival the
year before, and was of course a regular ingredient in the Vietnam protest movement
of the sixties and early seventies.
By the late 80s however,
people's willingness to take these kind of measures had markedly diminished... even
in a place as supposedly pot-soaked as Nimbin. The U.S.-driven "War On
Drugs" was in full swing. In the cities, the psychedelic, sacramental dealing
circles of the sixties had long ago been replaced by more commercial, well-oiled
interests. Smack was available everywhere in Australia. Hope was extremely unfashionable.
Those in Nimbin still
clinging to their hippy ideals were pretty much trying to keep their heads down...
at least as far as drugs were concerned.Regular invasive police helicopter raids
were just a fact of life. The general wisdom seemed to be that showing an interest
in drug law reform was as suicidal as walking into a police station smoking a joint.
Despite this generalised
paranoia, a few brave souls were consistently stirring the pot.
Beginning in 1988, a series
of public demonstrations, press releases and politically motivated events kept
emanating from Nimbin, all of them hammering the same basic point ... the drug laws
are a miserable, socially destructive failure. At first, these words of wisdom only
seemed to be coming from one person, Bob Hopkins, a Nimbinite who conducted a
vigorous and extremely effective one-man campaign against the drug laws. Gradually
other folk began to get involved. Michael Balderstone (the owner of the local
"hippy" museum) and David Heilpern (a lawyer and activist who later became
a magistrate) were among the early ones.
By 1993, a small but
dedicated bunch of folk had coalesced around the name "The Nimbin HEMP
Embassy". Their press releases and activities had consistently kept the issue
of drug law reform in the spotlight of the local media and more and more people were
coming out in support of what they had to say. The time seemed right for a larger
display of local public feelings. Hey presto, the first annual Let It Grow! Mardi
Grass and Drug Law Reform Rally was born.
The first Mardi Grass
attracted a crowd of about 1000 people and much publicity. The day went off without
a hitch. It was a huge success. By the next year, many more local people were openly
supportive of the event. That year, the Mardi Grass rally was preceded by a
conference and seminar which attracted politicians, academics and health
professionals from all over Australia. In a tradition that has continued to this
day, the crowd doubled over the previous year's numbers... 2000 people paraded
through Nimbin calling for an end to the madness, prejudice and social chaos that
masquerades as drug prohibition.
That year (1994) also saw
the beginnings of many events that have since become intrinsic to the Mardi Grass.
The HEMP Olympix had it's inaugural year, as did the Kombi Konvoy and the Cannabis
Cup. The now-legendary HEMP Olympix comprised pothead contests around joint rolling,
bong throwing and, for the more physically-minded, a Growers Ironperson competition.
For this contestants pitted themselves against the odds in outlandish tests of
strength such as crawling through lantana tunnels dragging large bags of fertiliser.
The Kombi Konvoy opened the
94 Mardi Grass and has done ever since. A procession of variously decorated Kombi
vans winds its way from nearby Lismore, arriving at dusk in the crowded lantern-lit
streets of Nimbin. Led by the Olympix torch-bearer, the Kombis eventually park in a
circle and the crowd forms for the opening ceremony.
Thus begins a weekend of
song, dance, speeches, workshops, poems, pot art exhibitions, hemp trade and fashion
shows, drug law and drug health information exchanges, seed swaps, magick, myth and
joyous, stoned civil disobedience and political demonstration. Finally on the last
day, a lucky few settle down for the Cannabis Cup.
Based (very loosely) on the
Amsterdam event of the same name, the Nimbin Cannabis Cup is a nice mellow wrap-up
to the heightened chaos of the previous few days. A rather broad selection of the
best local buds is tasted, toked and tested by a smattering of card-carrying
"expert" judges, eventually choosing a winner. If you don't make it as a
judge however it doesn't really matter. Just like in Amsterdam, there's so much good
pot everywhere that anyone that does make it to judge status is usually too stoned
to tell anyway.
The Mardi Grass has grown
stronger and larger every year and the Nimbin HEMP Embassy has continued to stay at
the forefront of drug law reform activism worldwide. Several large scale smoke-ins
and demonstrations have been held outside police stations and courthouses, political
candidates have been run (and polled quite highly), a television ad campaign was run
requesting people to dial-in to a safe number and report any cases of police
harassment or corruption. All this plus maintaining a high-profile drug education
outlet in Nimbin's main drag.
One of the more interesting
actions was the helicopter blockade in January 1997. Finally sick of the annual
hippy-bashing helicopter raids that the police had been mounting every year, the
HEMP crew and friends decided to do something about it. With a little ingenuity,
they found out where the chopper squad was staying and where they'd parked the chopper
for the night. Early the next morning, the cops awoke and opened their motel room
door only to be greeted by the rather unnerving sight of one or two hippies chained
underneath their wagons, a whole bunch of hippies waving and laughing at 'em from
across the carpark and a veritable swathe of camera-toting press all clicking and
whirring and taking notes right next to those goddamn hippies.
Needless to say the hippies
had a very articulate and convincing press release ready about the waste of public
money inherent in sending a bunch of gung-ho cops on double-pay in a very expensive
helicopter to circle and swoop above the local communes and come back with a
pathetic payload of what could only be described as personal stash. Meanwhile on the
other side of Lismore another couple of Hempsters were slowing things down by
chaining themselves to the chopper. The press loved this story, and the cops? Well,
the cops just shook their heads, got in their little, blue wagon and went away. To
this day, the helicopter squad has not returned to Nimbin.
All of these events lend
colour and strength to the Mardi Grass. Last year's was a huge success and this year
promises even more. As time goes on and the crowd grows, it's interesting to watch
the demographic changing. These days, the old-school hippies are well and truly
out-numbered by the whole array of society's archetypes. Many of these are just as
counter or sub cultural as the hippies (punks, ferals etc). The vast number of them
however are just plain, ordinary suburban working people. Many of them are there
with their kids. Not all of them smoke pot, but they all know someone who does and
they all agree that it's time for the drug laws to change.
It's ironic but somehow
typical that the drug law reform movement should find it's most vocal and public
face in a place like Nimbin. The Mardi Grass gives voice to frustrations and
problems that are vexing the whole of mainstream society, but most people aren't
quite brave enough to express this to their neighbours. In the anonymity of a
"freak-fest" like Mardi Grass, many people are quite prepared to stand up and
be counted. This is vitally important as a first step, but it's only when there's a
Mardi Grass happening in every town and when every pot smoker puts their hand up
that the laws will change. It's too easy for the mainstream to ignore protest when
it just happens in Nimbin.
So come this year to Mardi
Grass, but remember that it's a drug law reform rally and not just a pot party.
We're there to make some points not just to get out of it, and remember to take some
of the magick, idealism and commitment home with you when you go, there's enough to
Neil Pike interviewing Police at the Raid of the Nimbin HEMP Embassy during the Federal Election Campaign, 31st October 2001.