Troubles Down Under

Just before I left for a 22,000 mile round trip journey to Australia to cover the tenth annual Mardi Grass festival in the counterculture village of Nimbin, an acquaintance said, “You have the best job in the world. You travel everywhere and smoke pot. What a life!”
Her words burned in my ears when I tried to get past US airport security personnel to board the first flight of my two day trek to Nimbin. Three little old ladies and a government spook at the checkpoint screamed at me because I asked for hand inspection of my photographic film, which can be damaged by being run through x-ray devices. The small airport was empty. No other passengers were waiting to be screened. The biddies and the FAA nark had time to hand check my film ? they just didn’t want to.

Behind the checkpoint, cradling a machine gun and looking bored, was a military soldier who couldn’t have been more than 21 years old. I tried arguing with the government transportation security officer. His reply: “This is a free country, and you are free to not get on the plane. If you want, we can have that soldier settle this.”

After watching my film get fried, I raced to the departure gate. The ticket agent said I had barely made it in time. “Those security people even harass our flight attendants and pilots,” she reported. “They are just terrible. It makes it where you don’t even want to fly. What’s happened to our country?”

Welcome to Oz

At Los Angeles International Airport, the checkpoint lines were 20 yards long, but security personnel hand-inspected my film without complaint.

Soon, I was in a winged cylinder going six hundred miles an hour. The Pacific Ocean and the curving earth trailed beneath as the plane crossed the International Date Line and the Equator. I had left my US home in springtime, but two days later I landed at Brisbane Airport, jet lagged in Australian autumn.

A female Australian Customs officer with a “sniffer beagle” stopped next to me. I was “asked” to empty my hand luggage and open my suitcases. The dog stuck his nose in my belongings and slobbered on them.

The dog handler asked if I had ever carried fruit in my luggage; I fearfully confessed that two days earlier, I had started my journey with three apples, now eaten.

“Well done,” she said to the dog, giving it a tasty treat. “Australia must protect itself from alien fruits. You are free to leave.”

Ah, but I wasn’t.

Instead, I was shunted into a side area where Customs agents gathered to inspect my luggage and interrogate me. I tried to pass myself off as a generic photographer and writer who would be documenting Australia’s scenic beauty and rural culture, but a senior officer said, “We already know who you are. In fact, we have looked on your website. Going to Nimbin, are you?”

The agent’s questions became more political and deceptive, less friendly. An officer put on rubber gloves. I was in loser limbo. I felt my butt tighten. I had with me several copies of Cannabis Culture magazine, including an issue that contained my article on last year’s Mardi Grass.

“These magazines are banned,” an officer intoned. “It is illegal to smuggle them into the country. You could face serious penalties. They advocate the breaking of laws and the use of illegal substances.”

For half an hour, various functionaries and supervisors spoke via telephone about what to do to me. The options ranged from banning me from Australia permanently, banning me temporarily, sending me back to the USA on the next plane out, or just confiscating my magazines.

My head was spinning from jet lag and the threat of being sent back or banned. I tried joking with the bureaucrats, saying they’d enjoy reading about Nimbin.

“I don’t want anything to do with a dope magazine,” one officer replied, scowling at my hemp clothes, hemp shampoo and hemp moisturizer. “I don’t need to get any stupider than I already am. That’s the study that just came out, that marijuana makes you stupid. How does it feel to be stupid?”

They all laughed at me. Aussie men have a habit of insulting people as a way of testing others and, ironically, as a way of showing respect. Another officer explained the “stupid” comment by saying, “He’s only taking the piss out of you, mate.”

But it wasn’t a joke when an agent found my Cannabis Culture t-shirt and read out loud the slogan on the back of it- “Overgrow the Government”- which was deemed a terrorist sentiment. The shirt was confiscated. They debated about whether they should also confiscate a bottle of melatonin ? a totally legal substance used to counter jet lag ? as well as my hemp products.

Finally, 90 minutes after I got off the plane, I was handed a piece of paper indicating what products I had forfeited, and told me to remember that “any amount of marijuana is illegal in Australia.”

“We know you’ve been arrested for it in the states,” an officer said, “but that doesn’t necessarily keep you out of Australia. But if you get caught with it here, then you will be banned ? forever.”

As sincerely as possible, I thanked them for not doing worse to me. “In the US, I would have been taken into a back room and somebody would have stuck their finger up my bum,” I said. “You guys have been almost polite.”

“We’re only polite because we are unarmed,” a burly officer said with a half smile as I hurried away from the terminal. “If we had guns, we wouldn’t be so polite.”

Stupid yank journo

Nimbin is a two hour drive through lovely emerald countryside from Brisbane. I arrived having been awake for two days. I couldn’t wait to settle into a chair at Andrew Kavasilas’ Nimbin Oasis Caf? and inhale some kind Aussie outdoor Sativa while enjoying a choco-coffee.

Kavasilas is a major local businessman and activist. He’s one of few Nimbinites who sincerely and openly welcome media attention. I wanted him to catch me up on the tumultuous year that Nimbinites had experienced ? with major busts coming last May just after Mardi Grass, Kavasilas and other pot caf? people arrested, police attacks on the Hemp Embassy and resultant street riots, wars between teenage dope dealers, junkies and elite pot dealers? it had been a tough year.

I parked my rental car near the Nimbin Hemp Embassy, so named because embassies generally enjoy protected status, and walked slowly up the village main street.

Above me, the psychedelic hues of building art swirled in autumn’s amber sun. Raucous parrots cavorted in the crisp air. On the sidewalk, heroin addicted girls with gaunt eyes and peach-fuzz bare midriffs offered “weed, smack, sex, coke, meth, and crack.” I couldn’t resist asking if they believed the theory that says early marijuana use induces people to use hard drugs.

Rainbow Caf?: one of the locations raided by police.Rainbow Caf?: one of the locations raided by police.None of them stated that their drug-taking had started with marijuana, however. Most said that they first used cigarettes and alcohol, followed by drugs like cocaine. They didn’t think pot led them to use hard drugs. They just wanted to have fun with anything they could get their hands on ? boys, booze, drugs, cars, chain saws ? regardless of the consequences.

Several hard drug dealers and users told me they had been sent to Nimbin by faraway police, social workers, and judges.

“If you get in trouble with hard drugs in Sydney,” one heroinizer said, “when you get out of lock-up or hospital they give you a one way bus ticket to Nimbin. They tell you, ‘Go to Nimbin, they like junkies there.’ The bad scene here is not because of Nimbin weed, it’s because they use Nimbin as a dumping ground. The government wants to make Nimbin look bad.”

One drug salesgirl ? she might have been 15 years old and at least five feet tall ? was relentlessly accosting pedestrians while telling me that “some parents use their kids as street sellers, what’s wrong with that?”

“Why do you do this?” I asked. “Aren’t you afraid of being arrested?”

“I’m too young to be done in,” she replied, while eyeing everyone with a predatory glare.

“But you are selling hard drugs. You might be helping people to kill themselves. Doesn’t that matter?”

“My boyfriend is what matters,” she hissed. “He will beat the fuck out of me. So piss off. You’re hurting sales.”

Her angry vibe was reinforced by a long-haired older guy who grabbed my arm roughly and spat out, with alcohol-infected breath, “You are a stupid Yank journo. Nimbin doesn’t need publicity. We don’t need tourists. Why don’t you just go back to your own fuckin’ country and take the foreigners with you?”

Andrew Kavasilas, owner of the Oasis Caf?: a tough year.Andrew Kavasilas, owner of the Oasis Caf?: a tough year.Paradise lost?

What I saw in Nimbin this year is similar to what I have seen recently in other places where pot commerce, politics, and the drug war intersect. In famed pot-growing locales like Northern California, Jamaica, Hawaii and Nimbin, the sweet hippie-Irie vibes, sincere activists, and naturally mellow effects of cannabis are being sullied by hard drugs, greed-heads, provocateurs and other infiltrators, violence, vicious police actions, and stupid government drug policies.

I still feel comfortable recommending Nimbin as a premier cannatourist destination, and when you read part two of my Australia odyssey in our next issue you will see why, but I would be dishonest if I told you that the kind village I portrayed for you in my article about last year’s Mardi Grass was still totally intact (CC#34, Emerald buds in the land of Oz).

Unfortunately, things have changed. The friendly feeling now shares center stage with an agro vibe of hostility and paranoia. According to a lot of people who went out of their way to tell me their analysis of Nimbin’s problems without having the guts to put their names in print, Nimbin had been “ripped up” by police raids and narks, by internecine warfare in the cannabis activist community, by “pot profiteers,” by marijuana-dealing motorcycle gangs, by “street punks” whose “hippie-dippie” parents raised them with all kinds of dope dealing and now their kids want some of the action, by hard drugs and hard drug users, by political hits emanating from local, regional and federal politicians, and by abuse of marijuana.

The Oasis` famous chocolate coffee.The Oasis` famous chocolate coffee.I was surprised at the ad hominem attacks inherent in people’s statements about why Nimbin was seeing an increase in street crime and social decay.

According to Michael Balderstone, a Hemp Embassy head honcho, Mardi Grass organizer, and long-time cannasage, “The community is being torn apart by the police, the government of New South Wales, and by its own residents.”

Andrew Kavasilas, who was arrested last year in raids that took place a week after Mardi Grass ended (CC#36, Harassment down under), also blamed the police and “some divisive individuals.”

“A busload of police came to town just after Mardi Grass,” explained Kavasilas, founder and manager of the Oasis Caf? and one of the few people in Nimbin who likes stupid Yank journos. “They came here and they also went to the Rainbow Caf?. While the bust was going on, my employees were ragging on the police, so I went outside and asked the police what they were doing, and they didn’t know, so I went around the back way to the Rainbow and watched what was going on over there. Then I went to the Hemp Embassy and started calling bureaucrats who had prior knowledge of our caf? experiment and had indicated support for us running a Dutch style situation at the caf?. At some point, a police official told one of my people to tell me that if I didn’t get my ass back to the raid site, I would be in big trouble.”

Kavasilas was eventually arrested, as was an employee of the Rainbow Caf?. Andrew says that during the raid police officers told him that they liked him as a person and didn’t really want to bust the caf?s.

Budstuds:...Budstuds:…“The bust idea came from a member of a political party that we call the redneck party,” he said. “He asked for the raids to happen. The police said to me, ‘Don’t be a campaigner, don’t be a martyr. Just go along quietly and all will be forgotten.’ But I can’t do that. If I lie down, who will stand up?”

A man named Cannabis is one of those who stood with Kavasilas. He runs a “hemp bar” next to the Hemp Embassy, and last year he was arrested for doing so. In court, Dave told the judge that his caf? was a “demonstration model” that showed how a regulated cannabis trade would work.

“The street selling isn’t working, but if we provide cannabis indoors, sane and safe, it works,” Dave told me. “Our model shows that cannabis cafes are a helluva lot more sane than alcohol bars.”

Apparently, the judge bought the argument: Dave Cannabis’ sentence was a small fine and unsupervised release. Kavasilas has not been so lucky. I talked to him while his exuberant five-year-old daughter Zoe played and sang songs with her little friends underneath a table, in a cramped office filled with computers and activist paperwork. Kavasilas’ mild-mannered son Nathan strode in, and was promptly sent by his dad to purchase cream and milk for the caf?’s coffee bar.

We could have been in any Greek restaurant or deli in the world, enjoying a family business, happy and vibrant, except that Daddy has to go to court every few weeks to answer charges that may send him to prison.

I told Andrew I viewed him as a courageous activist, but that some other people, including people who sat and smoked with him in his caf?, behind his back called him a “pot profiteer”
and “publicity hound” who was “basically a drug dealer who got caught.”

...the finest resin glands...…the finest resin glands…“Oh yeah, there are a lot of backstabbers here,” he said, wincing. “There are a lot of people who want growers to give their pot away for free. They want me to run my caf? as a community center without charging for coffee! People object to things for every reason you can imagine, mate. They might not like you because you’re a man, or because you’re Greek. There’s a lot of people who think their opinion is God’s truth. They hide in the bushes outside town while we try to move the town forward. They have their kids selling pot, or smoking it all day ? young kids, who don’t know what they are doing ? and then they criticize me for openly providing a service that harms nobody. They close their eyes to all the bad shit and attack people like me. If I was in this for the money, I wouldn’t be in it. I am in it for justice for the plant. I am in it to make Nimbin the best village in the world.”

Kavasilas has worry lines on his face that weren’t there last year, and one of his employees confesses that she “almost killed some pigs” when a pair of “airy-fairy undercover fuckers came in here the other day with their hidden cameras.”

“For the first four months after the arrest, I was depressed and scared,” Kavasilas recalls. “I would not even go to town. I just stayed around the house and did repairs, and tried to forget what I had seen and what it might mean. I knew I was challenging the law, but I thought we had an agreement, me and the powers that be. I still think everything will turn out all right. I knew my spirit would come back ? and here I am.”

...Australia has to offer!…Australia has to offer!Naked buds

Ah, I was forced to admire how the wild and wonderful spirit of Nimbin shines through despite all the hassles. A few days after I arrived in town, I began hearing rumors that local feminists objected to Cannabis Culture printing photos of attractive female flowers of the human variety. Some women told me that photos of cute girls are “sexist,” and “perverted.”

Later, apparently for my benefit, somebody invited me to a “nude male with marijuana” fashion show in the Oasis.

It was a real sausage fest. Growers, elderly men, a dread-locked white guy, musicians, a gay couple, a middle-aged male caf? manager who calls himself “the goddess,” and even the president of the Chamber of Commerce, all took off their clothes and did the “full Monty” while holding bouquets of buds that were supposed to, but didn’t quite, cover what one woman called “their rude bits.”

The lighting was dim and the poseurs’ background was a marijuana mural that blended too well with the real buds they were holding, but I faithfully photographed several nude dudes, the first time in my life I had ever worked with middle-aged naked guys.

“This was very, uh, interesting,” I said gamely, after the last penis-scrotum combo had been served and the guys had brushed resin glands off their wee-wees, “but I think most of our readers ? male and female ? would prefer that I photograph Angie the Australian and other beautiful young female flowers. You made your point, but most of these gentlemen are telling me they don’t want their rude bits in the magazine.”

“Well, you can put my picture in your magazine,” said one canna-cocksman proudly. “Just call me ‘the lucky stiff with a spliff.'”…Australia has to offer!

? In our next issue, read about the 2002 Mardi Grass, who won the Nimbin Cannabis Cup, how to grow Thunder Down Under, and so much more!