“Jesus Used It Back in the Day”: An Interview With Legalise Cannabis/HEMP’s Michael Balderstone

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The HEMP Party has decided to change its name to Legalise Cannabis Australia for the upcoming federal election.

Established back in 1993, HEMP or Help End Marijuana Prohibition has been keeping the issue of cannabis legalisation on the political agenda ever since.

But times have changed. And the recent establishment and success of Legalise Cannabis state and territory parties, lead to discussions about running federally and further, onto the amalgamation of these parties with HEMP, which has been contesting federally for decades.

Legalise Cannabis Queensland contested its state’s 2020 election, with 23 candidates running. And it picked up close to 1 percent of the vote. While Legalise Cannabis WA contested that state’s March election. And it took out two upper house seats, which was an Australian cannabis first.

Still waiting on official Australian Electoral Commission name change approval, Legalise Cannabis Australia/HEMP will be contesting the next federal election, with candidate Don Fuggle running against Morrison in Cook, and an unannounced candidate set to take on Kenneally in Fowler.

“God’s gift”, not the “devil’s weed”

Another issue with the name HEMP is that “m” stands for marijuana, and this is a term that has always been problematic. The use of marijuana was popularised by US prohibitionists early last century in an effort to demonise the plant, as the name conveyed racial overtones at the time.

Indeed, despite the United States being the birthplace of cannabis prohibition, 18 US states and the capital have now legalised the recreational use of cannabis, while 36 jurisdictions have legalised its medicinal use.

One only has to watch recent middle of the road TV programs made in the US to see main characters casually partaking in cannabis like it’s no big deal. And these aren’t your Hells Angels types either. We’re talking about geeky college students or parents lighting up as a normal part of life.

And in these US states – as well as Canada, where the herb is legal nationwide – cannabis has been classified as an “essential product” throughout the pandemic, which means its sale can continue during lockdowns.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Legalise Cannabis Australia/HEMP Party president Michael Balderstone about the reasons behind the changing of his party’s name, what they seek to achieve by running in the next federal election, and why it makes sense to legalise it for COVID-19.

Legalise Cannabis AustraliaHEMP Party president Michael Balderstone
Legalise Cannabis AustraliaHEMP Party president Michael Balderstone

Michael, why, after so many years, have the members of HEMP agreed to change the party’s name to Legalise Cannabis Australia?

It came off the back of Legalise Cannabis Queensland having a great result in the state election and then being keen to register Legalise Cannabis state parties. They also wanted to register federally.

So, we had a meeting. We thought it was crazy to have two single issue parties to legalise cannabis contesting federally. We surveyed our members, and three-quarters were keen to change the name.

Then the Legalise Cannabis Western Australia result – where they got the two upper house seats – was so unexpected and exciting that everyone went with it.

So, it feels like a rebirth. We’ve always had a few complaints that we are too Nimbin-based. It’s good to get beyond Nimbin and become more of a national mob.

Also, people don’t like the word “marijuana” because it was created by US prohibitionists. And there is no confusing legalising cannabis is what we’re all about, because hemp is now legal and farmers can grow it.

So, it’s a rebirth. It is a new movement. There are new people involved across Australia, forming state parties. And we’ll probably get more votes.

So, this links the federal HEMP party to the state parties going by the name of Legalise Cannabis?

Yes. They are definitely all related. On the legalisecannabis.org.au website, you can join both parties at once: the federal party and the state party wherever you are.

So, they’re definitely linked. They are related. We see ourselves as one mob.

You’ve mentioned the taking of two seats in the WA Legislative Council by Legalise Cannabis WA candidates in that state’s March election.

What does this tell us about the campaign to legalise cannabis in this country?

The campaign has got a lot of interest, in particular, because of the drug driving laws, which are making people disgusted.

It’s a big thing. It’s a big country. There are a lot of people living in the country. Your driving licence is critical.

It is one thing to get busted and get a fine. But to lose your licence is below the belt, especially if you might have smoked a joint the night before and you’re not impaired at all.

We all know it’s bullshit. And it has really gotten people’s backs up because it’s unfair. The police are abusing it really. That is a particularly big issue.

Also, people want to be able to grow their own. Anybody can get legal cannabis now it seems. It’s not a problem. Your local doctor may not help, but there are plenty online who can.

But it’s expensive. The consulting fees can be expensive. And this is all for a plant that we can grow in our backyard. Be it CBD or THC, everybody could be growing their own medicine.

They’re the particular things that are irking people.

For years, the authorities said it will drive you crazy, and there was no medicinal value. But finally – mainly due to epileptic children – they have had to agree that it does have medical properties.

Now you can get a doctor to prescribe it. But we can’t grow our own. We are still hunted.

So, the serious injustice of drug driving laws and not being able to grow our own, have given the whole movement a fair spike, so I wasn’t so surprised they got a lot of votes in WA.

HEMP or Legalise Cannabis Australia is challenging seats in the upcoming federal election. What will this entail? And what are you hoping to achieve?

What we are really trying to do is get the issue on the agenda and get politicians to have a discussion about it, and maybe, start to review the law.

Really, we need another drug summit. It is time this country had another proper drug summit, which looked at the war on drugs all over.

I know the experts will say that the policing is doing more harm than good but, sometime, we have to let go and be more compassionate and empty the gaols.

We really want to get it on the agenda. If we got someone elected, fantastic. But I don’t usually dream about that. I just like to get it on the agenda. Get the politicians to discuss it.

We know the Greens have a good policy. But to be honest, Labor has been so disappointing to all of us. It’s like they’ve got a different coloured tie on. They seem to be the same as the Liberals, at least on drugs.

The more knowledge that gets out there about what the drug war is all about, the more people are disgusted by it: the power of the pharmaceutical industry. At the moment, in this pandemic, it looks like the TGA is running the country.

So, the issue is on the agenda. We’re just trying to keep it there. And if we get someone elected, fantastic.

I would like to think we will run two candidates for the Senate in every state, as well as a few lower house seats.

I’m pleased Don Fuggle has agreed to run against Scomo in his own electorate. Don has lived there for ages and knows the subject well. There will be a few others too.

Vote to legalise cannabis in Australia

As a side note, if you watch television programs made in the US these days you often see regular characters sparking up a joint like it’s nothing special or detrimental, meanwhile over here you can be arrested for the same behaviour. How long can this go on?

That’s why we’re getting votes. And why the party is still a valid thing to be doing.

It’s hard to believe we are still going on like we are. It’s hard to believe that every time anybody suggests cannabis law reform, the police just tread all over it like they’re the experts.

I concede they’re the experts in getting rid of drugs. But why are they the experts on drug use? That is what they’ve become.

It is unbelievable. California got legal weed in 1996, 25 years ago. And it has been a win-win for everybody.

I don’t know how long we can keep our head in the sand here. You know, our leader is from the Hillsong Church, so he probably still thinks it’s the devil’s weed, where, in fact, I’d be pretty sure that Jesus used it back in the day.

Back in Jesus’ day, it was called “God’s gift”.

And lastly, Michael, in your opinion, why would right now be an ideal time to legalise cannabis?

Well, it’s interesting in North America – Canada and the US states where it is legal – they declared cannabis “essential” in the pandemic, which it is: it’s medicinal.

And all the statistics have shown that cannabis has been super popular in lockdowns, which makes total sense.

Otherwise, people are drinking. There is a total thing here, where if people can’t access cannabis when they want it, they will go and find something else, which is far more damaging, far more socially a problem, and far more medically a problem.

Even just health-wise, the timing is important for cannabis.

But Australia is just getting left behind in our attitude to drug use. Across the world, people are recognising that this is just people trying to have a good day, trying to have less pain and trying to enjoy their day. There is nothing criminal about it.

The whole drug war has been driven by the pharmaceutical industry, with the police working for them. And increasingly, people are waking up to that.

Whether that is big enough a priority to vote for us, we will find out.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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