of the Nimbin MardiGrass
Nimbin is 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! MardiGrass and Drug Law Reform Rally
The first MardiGrass 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 MardiGrass 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.
In 1995 the first MardiGrass
Cannabis Grower's Cup was held.
The year 1996 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 Hemp Traders Trade Fair. 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 96 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 spare.
Neil Pike interviewing Police at the Raid of the
Nimbin HEMP Embassy during the Federal Election Campaign, 31st