Nimbin: home to the annual MardiGrass Festival and epicentre of Australian weed culture. Or at least, that’s what it used to be. Because as NSW Police crack down on growers, sellers, and smokers, Nimbin is becoming increasingly weed-free. And according to a report on Tuesday’s edition of SBS VICELAND’s The Feed, this is having a fairly dramatic effect on the town’s identity.
“So when I came here there was one cop in town,” explains Michael Balderstone who is president of Nimbin’s Hemp Embassy. “Back in those days it was just cool, it was no big deal, and the smart police were happy to leave pot alone.”
Michael goes on to explain that as property prices around Byron soared, a demographic with more cash and less time for drugs moved in. With them came more police, who imported Sydney’s zero-tolerance drug policy to Nimbin. And then things came to a head in 2016.
They came to be known as the “Lane Boys.” This was a collection of guys who were selling marijuana from a well-known laneway in town. More than 40 people were arrested during Strike Force Cuppa, which in June 2016 netted the police around a $1 million in drugs, cash, and guns, while scoring 11 young men an assortment of jail terms and suspended sentences.
“I only ever dealt marijuana,” explains one so-called Lane Boy named Ruben. “It was very extremely normalised... it’s like you grow up out west and your dad's a sheep shearer, and you'd probably end up shearing sheep.”
Ruben—Like Michael from the Hemp Embassy—believed that weed was part of the region’s cultural fabric. He says he got into dealing because it was socially acceptable, which meant his drugs conviction came as something of a surprise.
Indeed, all of the boys’ drugs convictions were a first for Nimbin, and many felt that it was a case of the NSW Government drawing a line in the sand.
As Magistrate Alexander Mijovich said in court before sentencing: "Nimbin needs to grow up" and it’s not a "pocket of its own that's not part of Australian law."
In the year since, several people have been arrested in and around Nimbin during drug dog operations. Seven people were arrested back in April, just a week before the 2018 MardiGrass. “[It] was the perfect reminder of why we hold MardiGrass… Maybe that’s why they did it?” Michael Balderstone suggested to the Byron Echo.
The MardiGrass will continue into the foreseeable future but many locals say they’ve already noticed a shift. Because as Ruben observes, “If a tourist came to town now they'd probably be pretty disappointed.”
Watch the full report on The Feed. Tuesday at 7:30 PM (tonight!) on SBS VICELAND
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.