Every year some 10,000 people flock to Nimbin in northern NSW to watch a weed-themed parade, compete in a bong-throwing competition, and generally get stoned. This is the annual Mardi Grass festival which for three days openly celebrates weed culture around the nation. Or as openly as they can get away with.
In the decade under Coalition rule, the state of NSW has applied an increasingly ham-fisted approach to prohibition. This extends to Nimbin, where possession arrests have increased and riot cops have became regular Mardi Grass attendees. Then in 2016 Strike Force Cuppa gave 11 young men an assortment of jail terms and suspended sentences and it seemed like the writing was on the wall.
This year’s Mardi Grass is set to happen over the weekend of May 3rd and we wanted to see what they’re expecting. We spoke to longstanding Nimbin resident and Mardi Grass organiser Michael Balderstone about the changes he’s witnessed but why he still remains optimistic.
VICE: Hey Michael, can you describe what Mardi Grass was like in the 90s? What level of police presence was there back then?
Michael Balderstone: There was only one cop in town for the first couple of years. There was one cop in the village. But then, around 10 years ago, they started sending the riot squad, which was horrible. Originally it was very open, and everyone smoked openly, and weed was everywhere. And then, slowly but surely, more and more police came in. Now, we have about nine permanent cops in Nimbin and they’re chasing people about endlessly. It’s way harder now to be a cannabis user around here than it used to be. Which is pretty ironic, considering the world is waking up to the fact that it’s not the demon drug that they thought it was.
So how does the Mardi Grass function with all those cops around?
It’s definitely much more hidden, it’s much harder. They don’t really bring sniffer dogs into town, but they surround the town with saliva tasting units on all the roads leading in. They have sniffer dogs searching cars on those roads, and a lot of people have been busted over the years. And, it’s changed drug trends because people are much more likely to take pills, aren’t they? They’ll take stuff they won’t get caught with. That’s the end result of the police becoming more and more efficient in this war on cannabis. They’ve driven people to other drugs. And, we tried to make sure Nimbin is strictly just about weed, but the inevitable happened. You don’t smell cannabis smoke much around Nimbin, not like you used to.
So, have other drugs made their way into Mardi Grass in recent years?
Yeah, I think they have everywhere. Nobody carries a joint into a music festival anymore, do they? It’s all pills, which are easily hidden. So, they’ve actually made the situation quite dangerous, I reckon, with their super-efficient policing.
Can you tell me a bit about what Mardi Grass was like in those early years? What are some of your favourite memories?
Well, back in the early years, I remember clearly some guy sitting on the footpath, with a little blanket out in front of him. He had little individual buds on the blanket, priced. You know, there was a 50-cent bud, there was a $1 bud. That’s just how it was. He was wide open on the street, and people shared pot easily. I remember, in the early days, there were hardly any cops in the first few years. Then, they started coming. Suddenly, one year, I think there’d been a lot of media about it, I think the paper wrote a story. So, they sent the riot squad. Cops on horses, I think they had the water cannon, they had all these cops everywhere.
Last year, on the Saturday night, there were just two black public order and riot squad cars driving back and forth, crossing each other on the street, you know, like it was a serious terrorist camp or something. But, it didn’t stop everyone having a good time, because there were too many people for the police to manage.
You call Mardi Grass a “protestival.” Can you tell us what that means?
Well, we’re not a festival. People keep thinking it’s a festival, but we’re all about protesting and education. So, you know, there’s bong throwing competitions, which are mostly fun, and the Growers Ironperson event, which is a really hard obstacle course. It’s to educate people about how hard it is to grow pot under prohibition. And, the bong throw, we use to show what you’ve gotta do if the cops come. So, we’ve tried to make everything educational.
What will this year be like?
Well you just have to be very careful on the roads. Getting into Nimbin is tricky. Once you get in though, it’s all good. There’s a great green cabaret on Friday night now, which is maybe a dozen terrific, top-class performers. There’s a lot of comedy. A whole crew comes every year for comedy, guests from overseas as well. And there’s a lot of talks and discussions and panels. So, a lot of Australian and overseas experts in all things weed gather and share knowledge. We call it a Hemposium, it runs for the three days.
How do you think Mardi Grass will look like once weed is legislated?
It’ll look like a fantastic celebration. We always sworn we’d do it until the laws change, but I think when cannabis really gets properly legal, it will remain a celebration. I imagine that’s what will happen. It’ll be great. It’ll be great to have a Mardi Grass where we don’t have to worry about getting arrested. That really would be something.
When do you think that might become a reality?
Within five to 10 years I hope. Maybe quicker, it depends on the bloody politicians, who, you know, are so into their law and order and fear campaigns. Cannabis is entirely different to all the other illegal drugs. They’re all processed and this is just a dried herb.