Police Keep Raiding Australia's Cannabis Capital

Tourists come by the truckload to Nimbin, New South Wales, to score pot, and many locals have no trouble with the cottage drug industry. Nevertheless, the authorities are cracking down on dealers. What gives?

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Sep 18 2014, 12:00am

April Fool's Day raid, 2008. Photo via Nimbin Hemp Embassy

At a moment in history when the Uruguayan government and several US states are legalizing marijuana, the authorities in the Australian township of Nimbin, in northern New South Wales, are cracking down on marijuana possession. 

Nimbin has been renowned as a hub alternative lifestyles and recreational marijuana use for more than three decades (VICE filmed a documentary there a few years back). Last Thursday, September 11, 70 police officers descended upon it with drug-sniffing dogs to carry out raids on the well-known Oasis Café and Perceptio Bookshop, as well as random street searches, resulting in the arrest of eight people and the seizure of two kilos of cannabis.  

The raids were part of Operation Oleary, which was established in March 2014 to target cannabis supply in the local area. Along with the raids in town, a separate one was carried out upon a residential property in nearby Jiggi, resulting in the seizure of “a large amount of mature cannabis plants,” according to the police. Further seizures and arrests are expected. 

Richmond Local Area Commander Superintendent Greg Martin told the press that community discontent over the local drug situation led to the operation being carried out.

“As a result of this operation, we have dismantled a criminal group we allege was responsible for supplying significant amounts of drugs throughout the Nimbin area,” he said in a statement. “Those charged with ongoing drug supply face up to 25 years jail. We will continue to target drug offenders and treat them with the seriousness they deserve.”

Jim Moylan, a lawyer and national campaign director of the HEMP party, said last week’s raids were not the first such events; in 2010, there was an increase in police searches and raids. Moylan also thinks that the date, September 11, “is not an accidental date. After the last round of the police… almost every three weeks driving in with four vehicles and holding the whole town under siege, marching along and strip searching anyone they wanted, four years ago on 9/11 the population of Nimbin marched on the police station and stood out the front for four hours to make the point that they're the occupiers here, we're the residents.”

(The police actions can be traced back further to 2008 and the notorious April Fool’s Day raid, when several dozen local police and Sydney riot squad arrived on the Nimbin streets, raiding the Hemp Embassy and Museum.) 

According to Moylan, Cullen Street., the main road of Nimbin, is under constant observation. “There are ten or 11 surveillance cameras for that streetscape, which places it under more scrutiny from law enforcement than any other part of Australia,” he said.

Moylan, who has been providing free legal advice to those arrested during last Thursday’s raids, explained that as soon as street dealers are taken away, others come along to replace them. The cannabis trade in Nimbin is bustling, thanks to the busloads of tourists that arrive in the town every day. “It's no surprise that the local council did up the road into Nimbin but not to the other towns around there,” he said. “On the one hand we have this sort of backhand nod to the incredible commercial activity generated by the illegal marketplace at Nimbin and then on the other hand, we've got this arbitrary pounding on the people who are servicing that marketplace.”

Nimbin Hemp Embassy president Michael Balderstone said that at most, only about 5 percent of the Nimbin population has a problem with the local drug trade. According to him, before the raids undercover cops were buying drugs off local dealers. “They’ve been buying weed off people here for six months, so they can get people for supplying three times, I suspect, which will get them locked up. It’s a much more serious charge—you’ll be lucky not to go to jail, if you’ve sold three times.”

Balderstone believes police only arrested half the people they were after and denies that they dismantled a major operation, but rather targeted low-end street dealers. “They'll put a dozen young boys in jail. What's that going to do?” he asked. “And I think they'll be hunting to pick up the extra dozen people they didn't find on that day.

“The town, you know, we've been raided so many times and we've been picked on so many times and we're still resilient; people just keep on,” Balderstone added.

The police in Nimbin are simply enforcing the law, argues Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, although he'd like those laws to change. Wodak was recreation cannibis to be sold legally, like alcohol and tobacco are. That would include “warning labels on the packets, health-seeking information, consumer information, and... a system of hard-to-get but easy-to-lose licenses for production, wholesale, and retail.” He believes that the majority of people interested in buying recreational cannabis would prefer to do so legally, so restrictions on its lawful purchase should not be too confining or the black market would continue to prosper. 

Wodak pointed out some reasons to hope things are getting better: The penalties for cannabis possession in Australia have been decreasing for some time and in some parts of the country small-scale possession has been made legal

“The logic of it is that we'll end up with a regulated market, and so we should, in my view, to everybody’s benefit,” Wodak said. “One of the benefits to that would be reducing corruption among police and public officials.”

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