This is Nimbin: inside the “refugee camp for the war on drugs”

Backpackers kick back while sharing a joint in the Oasis Cafe, Nimbin. Several shops in town turn a blind-eye to customers using marijuana. (Paul Jeffers)

A look inside Australia's pot paradise.

Article by Mike McHardy
Photography by Paul Jeffers

The Hemp Embassy

In Australia, marijuana has been outlawed 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 into a spontaneous political protest.  The juvenile uprising that saw locals shelling the police station with eggs was a reaction to thousands of raids and arrests throughout the 1980’s and early 90’s. 

Only two months later, on May 1st, 1993, the people of Nimbin engaged in a more peaceful rally, which became the inaugural “Mardigrass Protestival”.  For the past 22 years the Hemp Embassy, Nimbin’s political stronghold, together 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” says Gary Big Bong, a local activist, while enjoying a puff of the devil’s lettuce.  The Hemp Party, a minor Australian political group based in Nimbin, will consider Mardigrass a festival only after marijuana prohibition ends.

Many strangers have come to visit Nimbin, and some have never left.  Those that stay, consider themselves to be marijuana refugees, seeking asylum from the stigmas of mainstream society.  While relaxing on the back porch of the Hemp Embassy, Michael Balderstone, the Hemp Party’s fearless leader explains, “I reckon, Nimbin is a refugee camp for the war on drugs.”

Make no mistake, for 365 days a year, supporters encourage cannabis use.  One only needs to walk down Cullen Street in Nimbin to witness an alternative lifestyle.  But despite Nimbin’s reputation, hard drugs, and to some degree alcohol, don’t fall under the community’s umbrella of acceptance.


According to marijuana activists the prohibition of cannabis is not only socially immoral, it’s also fiscally irresponsible.  Nimbin’s Hemp Party has taken note of evolving law reform in the United States, adopting the slogan “Colorado Dreaming”.  Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational marijuana sales on January 1st, 2014, marking the start of the best year in recent history for cannabis law reform.

“It’s not a festival, it’s not a protest, it’s a gathering.”

Speaking on the subject of legalisation and taxation of marijuana, Gary Big Bong so swiftly illustrates, “I’ve never been an activist for the rights of people to sell pot on the black market.  I’m an activist for the right people, to sell the right pot, to the right people.”

The advantages of marijuana legalisation, regulation and most importantly, taxation, have proven to be significant.  Colorado has generated valuable tax dollars from sales while keeping law enforcement, the judicial system and prison costs down.  They have also benefitted from a surging tourism industry and improved local economy.  During Colorado’s first month of sales, $3.5 million in taxes and fees were generated, over half of this income coming from recreational marijuana.

With an apparent momentum shift in the cannabis war, politicians everywhere are reconsidering the practicality of their region’s marijuana laws.  Jason Woodforth, Liberal National MP for Nudgee, Queensland, announces 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 their goal to cannabis law reform, but at times, they seem more disorganized than two hamsters running the opposite direction on a wheel.  Strategically, this breakdown could hinder their ability to maintain a professional and credible image in the eyes of the political opposition.


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 amongst the crowd while Jungle Patrol event volunteers maintain the peace.  Four police officers make their way to hemp embassy to compete in the annual Tug of Peace with Nimbin’s cannabis activists, The Polite Force. 

Families with young children walk about dressed festively in green, shouting “Happy Mardigrass” like it’s Christmas time.  The Kombi Konvoy parades down the strip as the crowd light joints to celebrate the clock turning 4:20.  Ten minutes later the man in the donut stand scrambles to keep up with demand, while the lone hotel publican swats flies to pass time.

“I’ve never been an activist for the rights of people to sell pot on the black market.  I’m an activist for the right people, to sell the right pot, to the right people.”

When thousands gather in a protest for the legalisation of drugs, often, law enforcement expects to have their hands full.  Many alcohol-fuelled gatherings see violence erupt easily and senseless property crime numbers shoot through the roof.  Mardigrass is different.  These people are pot smokers, most devoting their day to seeking, grinding, rolling or smoking their weed.

Sebastian Schmidbaur, a backpacker from Germany, passes a joint with friends while sitting in a common area at the Rox Hostel.  In an enhanced state of euphoria, he describes the area, “That’s the culture thing in Nimbin, just relaxing and enjoying your time.”

It may surprise you that open alcohol on Cullen Street will attract more police attention than smoking a joint.  Sgt Dave Longfield is a Public Order Tactical Advisor for the Richmond Local Area Command.  When speaking about maintaining a peaceful protest over the weekend, he clarifies their agenda.

“Over the past 3-4 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 over-indulge in alcohol tend to cause more drama than people who over-indulge in illegal drugs.”

Hidden from CCTV camera view, in the alley beside the Hemp Museum and Café on Cullen Street, almost any form of cannabis can be purchased.  You could buy potent cookies from a polite old lady, who genuinely concerned for your well being, may advise not to eat them all at once.  When purchasing the raw product one would be forced, at least initially, to deal with more intimidating characters.  Remarkably, these dealers are not as shady as you would expect.  In fact, they operate just as any other business, customers lining up in queue, offering various products at market competitive prices.

“I reckon, Nimbin is a refugee camp for the war on drugs.”

Not only do brazen dealers offer two types; bush weed at $280/ounce or hydro at $350/ounce, they use a digital scale to show the customer they get what they pay for.  Keep in mind this exchange takes place many times daily and right in the open.  Of course, dealers wouldn’t want unhappy customers disrupting future business.  

Michael Balderstone explains the struggle towards regulation, “A few tourists get ripped off, you know, we’ve tried really hard to stop that happening, and you’ll see they’re using scales mostly out the back of the museum.  It took ages to get that happening.”

The Bong Yell and Throw is perhaps the most coveted event of the Hemp Olympix.  The event is simple.  Competitors must launch a bong as far as possible while shouting pro-marijuana slogans to the crowd.  Steve Sorrensen, the sombre, yet comical bong throw commentator announces, “These are no ordinary bongs, they are International Hemp Olympix Sporting Bongs.”

An event so critical as Bong Toss requires the services of an official bong master, a live commentator, and a lethargic bong retriever, known as the bong boy or girl.  Unfortunately, during Saturday’s opening round, the sudden resignation of the bong girl caused unexpected delays, forcing bong tossers to the sidelines.  She was visibly exhausted, forced to run up and down a hill retrieving bongs for nearly 10 minutes.  The hemp embassy’s leaders quickly scrambled to recruit a replacement bong retriever, and the competition resumed. 

As the loudspeaker alerts patrons of upcoming Hemp Olympix events in Sativa Stadium, a joint rolling competition gets underway in the town hall. This competition features adverse conditions set out by judges, including blindfolded, speed, and creative rolling.  The current titleholder, Bob the Joint Builder, impressed the crowd by engineering an origami shaped joint.  Each crowd member looked more confused than the last, mystified about how you would even attempt to smoke this majestic masterpiece.  

At 4:20pm on Mardigrass Eve, civil celebrant Debbie Guest began reading passages for Nimbin’s first legally sanctioned Ganja Wedding.  Johnny Ganja and his bride, Aiti arrived out back of the Oasis Café to find a setting they have only imagined in their dreams.  Surrounded by freshly growing marijuana in the garden, Debbie announced before the crowd, “Relationships are forever changing, and Johnny Ganja and Aiti’s union grows and blossoms like a marijuana plant, forever changing.” 

“In our experience, people who over-indulge in alcohol tend to cause more drama than people who over-indulge in illegal drugs.”

Hundreds of colourful guests laughed, some who just happen to be passing by, suddenly found themselves part of a special celebration.  They were simply in the right place at the right time, contributing to the smoky shrine and witnessing matrimonial history in Nimbin.

After the ceremony, Aiti playfully hits Johnny with her marijuana bouquet while he fixes the dozen or so rolled joints placed in her hair.  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 cannabis

Whether or not you agree with recreational marijuana use, it’s becoming more difficult for critics to argue with its medicinal benefits.  At this point, 21 US States and the District of Columbia now have legalized the use of medicinal marijuana. 

Here in Australia, Tony “Mullaway” Bower has created and grown, be it illegally, a strain of marijuana known as “Cleverman”.  This strain helps young children who suffer from epileptic seizures, among other disorders. Doctors, patients, and their families believe Mullaway’s cannabis tincture, taken orally, is nothing short of a miracle cure for epilepsy.

3-year-old Cooper Batten, from Mernda, Victoria, suffers from several conditions, including severe epilepsy.  Two comparative EEG’s (Electroencephalogram, which is medical test used to measure electrical activity of the brain) were conducted.  His mother, Cassie Batton shared the staggering results of Cooper’s test.  “He had an EEG before we started the medical cannabis and it showed he was seizing for 57 minutes of the 60 minutes that we tested.  And his EEG after the cannabis showed seizure activity in the background, but no actual seizures.”

Despite Mullaway’s goodwill in providing free treatment to sufferers, the law has shown no mercy.  In 2012, Mullaway was charged with supply after police seized 200 plants from his property, he later received a one-year sentence.  Following a successful appeal, he was released after serving 6 weeks in the Mid North Coast Correctional Centre, near Kempsey, New South Wales. 

“These are self medicating people using an uncontrolled substance derived from their own anecdotal evidence.  Is this something we want to unleash on the population?”

Sitting outside his caravan on the final day of Mardigrass, Mullaway hints to the widespread consequences of his incarceration.  “I have over 100 children now, and if I go to jail these kids go back to having seizures, and then they die, it’s a simple fact.”

Shane Varcoe is the director of Dalgarno Institute, a drug and alcohol education coalition.  He shares his opinion regarding use of medicinal or therapeutic cannabis.  “These are self medicating people using an uncontrolled substance derived from their own anecdotal evidence.  Is this something we want to unleash on the population?”

8-year-old Tara O’Connell, from Mia Mia, Victoria suffers from chronic epilepsy.  In December 2012, after exhaustively trying 17 different unsuccessful pharmaceutical medications, the O’Connell’s were informed that Tara had 12 to 24 months left to live.

In January 2013, attempting to save their daughters life, the O’Connell’s, although sceptical, obtained and began administering Mullaway’s cannabis oil.  Tara adjusted to the medicine quickly, suffering only 1 seizure between February 10th and April 3rd, 2013.  Even more remarkably, Tara hasn’t suffered a single seizure since.  Her IQ has risen by 30 points, she’s off all pharmaceutical drugs, and she has been eating and sleeping normally.     

Dr Paul Carter of the Lancefield Country Practice in Victoria has been Tara’s GP for the past 5 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.”

Cheri O’Connell, Tara’s mother, highlights significant improvements in her daughter’s condition, “It’s been a huge change, her seizures have stopped, so she’s 13 months seizure free, which is down from 23,000 a year.” 

In a short statement issued from the office of Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, a spokesperson illustrated their 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.” 

The battle to legalise cannabis may be fought in Nimbin, yet the war stretches all over Australia.  As the cannabis supporter’s argument continues to gain momentum, the pressure mounts for the Australian government and health authorities to take action.  Nimbin’s Hemp Embassy will continue to lead the movement, and the smoke may never clear, but law reform in Australia can give new meaning to Mardigrass.  A taboo Protestival today could become a legitimate festival tomorrow.  Only time will tell.

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