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The Guy Who Took His 4/20 Protest to Sydney's Town Hall Steps

Jesse Willesse, the son of an Australian journalism great, was arrested after sparking up on the steps of Sydney's Town Hall.
April 21, 2015, 1:00am

Approximately 4pm - Jesse and Jasmine moments before the protest. Image by the Author.

Dressed in a tailored suit and converse sneakers, self-proclaimed tabloid artist, Jesse Willesee cuts a strong albeit nervous figure as the clock counts down to 4.20pm on the 20th of the fourth, 2015; what is also known as the international moment of indulgence for advocates of recreational and medicinal marijuana use. He and his girlfriend, Jasmine, a tall, slender Croation-Australian woman, who bedazzles in her Sailor Moon meets Spring Break ensemble, complete with half-inch fingernails painted white with little marijuana leaves, clink glasses to toast the occasion.

In a few minutes Jesse will run to the top of Sydney's Town Hall and spark up a joint in protest of what he calls inhumane and undemocratic drug policy in Australia.

"It's a failure, it's an invasion of privacy, it's an invasion of personal freedoms. I also think in regards to this protest there is an element of not fearing law enforcement, which is important at this time," he says.

4.18pm - Jesse dashes across George Street to the Town Hall. All photos by Liam Cameron unless otherwise specified.

Jesse, who is the son of Australian journalism legend, Terry Willesee (and nephew of fellow don, Mike), began smoking weed at 23 to help his Attention Deficit Disorder. It worked, he says, claiming the drug helped his concentration as well as setting him free from his "relentless thoughts." But it's the benefits it offers the terminally ill, as well as those suffering serious illnesses such as epilepsy, that he's trying to raise the profile of today.

"I really can't stand by and respect these laws and not do anything about it when it has helped my life so much and I know there are other people whose lives it could help much more than myself," he says.

Studies across the globe have shown cannabis to be effective in treating various debilitating and terminal illnesses, including nausea and vomiting resulting from chemotherapy; the loss of appetite of AIDS patients and cancer sufferers; and alleviating pain, muscle wasting and spasticity among neurological disorders and multiple sclerosis sufferers.

"My family had a great sense of social justice. My grandfather was a senator that worked in the Whitlam government, they are a Labor family, and they were pretty big in Australia. They were all in the media but I think having that strong sense of social justice is what really appealed to people, it made them compassionate journalists, and I think I really took that on. If you really believe in something, stand up for it," he says.

The case for decriminalisation of medicinal marijuana in Australia has received support from the top, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott. "I have no problem with the medical use of cannabis, just as I have no problem with the medical use of opiates," Abbott wrote in a letter to radio broadcaster Alan Jones last August.

"If a drug is needed for a valid medicinal purpose though and is being administered safely there should be no question of its legality. And if a drug that is proven to be safe abroad is needed here it should be available," the letter read.

The same day as Jesse's protest, it was announced Queensland, Victoria and NSW would join forces in conducting clinical trials on medicinal cannabis. Elsewhere the drug has been decriminalised in over 20 countries including 20 States across the United States. While In England, where it is no more legal than here, police watched on as 1000 advocates of decriminalisation turned out at Hyde park for a collective 4.20 spark up. The wheels of bureaucracy are turning too slow in Australia for Jesse, however, and so it was time to blaze.

"Are you gonna finish the joint on the stairs?" asks Jasmine. Jesse isn't sure. He doesn't want to hang around with the drugs in his hand if he can help it. Despite several provocative protests so far, including one in which he smoked pot on camera in front of several police stations, he has a clean sheet when it comes to convictions and plans to keep it that way.

As a tabloid artist, the success of his installation (or protest) depends not on who or how many people show up but the traction it gets online. And he only needs one photo of him doing the deed for that. "It's tabloid journalism applied to art… It's short, it's entertaining, 10 things, a list, smoking weed in front of six police stations. They see it and their job is done," he explains.

Generating huge online momentum is something he's pretty good at. Before setting foot on the Town Hall steps, the story had already been covered in newspapers and online around the country and has done another round of coverage since.

Within seconds of lighting the joint, however, four police are on the scene calling Jesse by name and ordering him to put it out. He complies and is escorted into the Town Hall to be searched before eventually being charged with "self-administering a prohibited substance."

Jesse's supporters wait while he's searched by police.

Jesse will appear in court next month, by which point the whole process will have chewed up a few thousand dollars in taxpayer money. Something even the police seem to agree is a total fucking waste.

"Where I just got transferred from, you might have been able to ask him just to chuck it in the garden," explains the police officer on duty. "But this is the city. There's cameras everywhere. If you get seen doing that your boss is in strife and then you're in strife," he says.

Once the search was over, Jesse took up a position at the top of Town Hall and addressed his followers - all 9 of them, as they huddled under umbrellas.

"Remember smoking weed is not a crime!" he pronounced. "Any photos of today hashtag 'weedisnotacrime. Thankyou,"he said, before jogging down the stairs and calling out to his girlfriend,"Baby," as the pair embraced under an umbrella and headed for a waiting taxi, photographers and a loyal fan or two in tow.

Job done, Jesse and Jasmine head off home.

Follow Jed on Twitter: @jed_j_smith