This weekend a bunch of stoners gathered at the MardiGrass Festival in Australia's cannabis capital of Nimbin. The festivities included the usual bong-throwing competition and Kombi van parade, as well as the traditional big meet up at 4/20. But I went along to explore another part of the festival's culture, the Polite Force.
The Polite Force is a self-appointed local weed police organization that works to build a better relationship between smokers and the authorities so everyone can spark up in peace. And they appear to be succeeding. This year the official police presence was more relaxed than I'd personally ever seen. There were fewer sniffer dogs and they even allowed festival participants to openly light up in public.
I caught up with Max Stone, a.k.a. Big Bong, a member of the Polite Force, in the Hemp Bar to chat about their efforts. There, surrounded by aging hippies, he said the Polite Force was formed as a response to the cops hanging around the festival in previous years. "We needed a way to juxtapose this police presence, to chill the MardiGrass out," he said.
As I sat with him, the force seemed to be doing little more than preparing a giant joint for the 4/20 gathering. When I asked about their practical efforts he admitted, "We are more like an avant-garde performance troupe, rather than an organizing body or in effect anything."
The relationship between the police and Nimbin residents is hardly warm, especially after last year's raids. But today, between their usual rounds, the regular police chatted happily with the locals. A few even dropped into the Hemp Bar to say hi while the locals politely hid their joints. Stone was adamant that there were no bad feelings between the police and the Polite Force.
"This is not the big final between the pot smokers and the police, they are here to make sure it's safe."
It was a sentiment shared by Senior Constable Helen Crawford, who told me, "From the police perspective it all seemed to go quite well."
Considering the improved relationship with police, I tried to get a larger sense of what they offered the regular cops didn't. I asked another patrol guy Gerhard, he admitted he wasn't sure what their actual role was. But it involved helping people too stoned to function, controlling traffic, and blocking the roads for the parades. All of which sounded pretty vital to me.
I don't know if you could give all the credit to the Polite Force, but I'd never seen so many stoners so chill around cops before. Even when we were saliva tested on our way home, we were let go with no problem. But as Stone said, "Our problem is not with the police. Our problem is with the politicians and the laws that the police enforce."
Follow Laura on Twitter.