It's a crisp Wednesday morning when my photographer Cal and I pull up to a steep, leafy driveway in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Matt Riley, leader of Melbourne's Free Cannabis Community and organiser of the city's annual 420 picnic, stands waiting for us at the door. The date is April 19—it's 24 hours before D-day.
Every year since 2011, thousands of Melbourne stoners have descended upon Flagstaff gardens to collectively blaze together in a peaceful protest against marijuana prohibition. Riley says prohibition hurts good people: he believes that smoking a joint every now and then shouldn't have you labelled a criminal. As he brews us a special coffee, I'm inclined to agree. We settle down in his living room to talk about tomorrow's picnic, and the future of weed in Australia.
Matt explains he became a weed activist for the same reason most people do. "Essentially, my cannabis use is self-medication and it really does help, but because I'm not really one to hide anything, I've copped all sorts of grief over the years," he says. "It just got to a point where I said 'enough is enough' and my activism began."
While he likes to start the day with a few bongs, Matt doesn't wish to push cannabis on anyone. "People can make up their own minds," he says. "It's not for me to tell people what to do. All I am asking is that those of us in society who do use cannabis—and it's a good percentage of the population—be allowed to do so in peace. We are good people. We're creative, colourful, compassionate and caring. We don't deserve to be criminalised."
He's not alone in this respect. Some politicians, like the Sex Party's Fiona Patten, are on board too. And while they're yet to endorse recreational weed, every state government in Australia has taken steps to legalise medicinal cannabis.
"I think legal recreational weed is going to happen in Australia, possibly quite quickly," Matt says when I ask whether he thinks recreational weed is on the horizon. "But don't hold your breath." According to the unlikely activist, although the last five years have seen a boom in weed culture in Australia, the "political climate has changed." He's feeling less than at ease with how tomorrow's picnic will go.
"At 420 this year it's really going to be a bit of a non-event in some regards," he says. "The police have been given a different directive this year, they will intervene if people light up in front of them." At previous events, Victoria Police have essentially turned a blind eye to the event.
Matt believes the annual picnic is essentially being shut down by the powers that be because the public are being to look at prohibition as more and more of a joke, and the authorities are pushing back.
"Hundreds of people smoking dope in the park month after month [Matt runs smaller picnics at Flagstaff Gardens on a monthly basis] and the police are cool with it. It's embarrassing for the government. The tolerance we've been shown in the past is no longer…I really don't want to see any arrests; prohibition already does enough harm without us throwing ourselves at its mercy. I don't think it will do our cause any good. It's time to set a new direction," says Matt as he ushers us over to his computer.
En route, we walk past a few plastic bags full of what Matt describes as crappy weed. "Someone dropped that weed off to me the other day, I thought I might make some hash out of it. But I… uh… gave it to my cat, he gets hash in his food every day," says Matt with a wry grin. Matt's cat, Zebedee, is almost 18 years old now, and is quite possibly the most chill feline in the world. "To be honest, I don't think he would be here if it wasn't for the hash oil," Matt says.
At the computer, Matt shows us his plans for a new community centre aimed at creating an atmosphere of weed acceptance. Matt says this community center, when it gets up and running, will showcase the creativity within the cannabis community and subsequently highlight that good people smoke cannabis, and they shouldn't be criminalised.
You have to admit that he's passionate about the cause. "To subject people who aren't inherently criminal to the impacts of prohibition causes a great deal of harm. Not only are there impacts on individuals who are busted or fail drug tests, but division is also created in families and community alike," he says. ""It's a pretty simple equation. Prohibition hurts good people. End it."
Interviews and photos from last year's 420 picnic here.