It’s been a big year for marijuana in Australia. In February, federal parliament passed the Narcotic Drugs Amendment Bill 2016 allowing for the legal cultivation, manufacture and distribution of medicinal cannabis.
Under the new system – which came into effect on October 30 – businesses can apply for a licence to grow the plant for medicinal purposes. However, the scheme has its critics.
BRW rich-lister Barry Lambert is a company advisor to Ecofibre: Australia’s largest medicinal cannabis grower. He announced this month they’re taking their business to the US, as the restrictions in the federal government’s legislation make it unworkable.
There are also concerns amongst small producers – who are currently providing the medicine to people in need – that the government will begin cracking down on their operations. A medical marijuana dispensary in Newcastle run by the Church of Ubuntu was raided just a few weeks ago.
NSW medical marijuana trials
In NSW, medicinal cannabis trials are underway. The government just launched one for chemotherapy patients. And another for children suffering from epilepsy has already begun.
But a belated trial for terminally ill cancer patients won’t begin until next year, as the government is having trouble sourcing a placebo to test against the medicine.
These trials were announced by premier Mike Baird in December 2014, but many question why it’s necessary to undertake trials in Australia, when so many have been successfully carried out overseas.
Trouble in Nimbin
The NSW Northern Rivers town of Nimbin has long been associated with cannabis. In 1992, the Nimbin HEMP Embassy was established, and next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Nimbin MardiGrass: an annual celebration of all things cannabis.
This year, the town suffered yet another series of police raids. On June 28, under Operation Cuppa, NSW police arrested a group of men known locally as the Lane Boys – who were allegedly involved in selling marijuana in Rainbow Lane.
Police had a CCTV camera set up filming the laneway for six months prior to the raids.
Local supporters of the Lane Boys consider them an integral part of the community. They kept other drugs off the streets and made sure kids didn’t get involved in dealing drugs.
Roadside Drug Testing in northern NSW
It’s well-known the devices used by police don’t test for levels that have been proven to cause driver impairment, as breathalysers do for alcohol. Rather, drug testing devices detect tiny trace elements of just three illicit substances, one of which is THC.
Long-time pot advocate
Michael Balderstone is the president of the Nimbin HEMP Embassy. He’s been campaigning for the legalisation of the plant for the last 30 years.
Balderstone is also the president of the Australian HEMP party. He ran as the Western Australian candidate for the party in the federal election last July. The party’s aim is to “re-legalise and regulate personal, medical and industrial use” of cannabis.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Mr Balderstone about this year’s cannabis developments and why the plant should be legalised.
What’s currently happening with the Lane Boys?
I went to court last week for a lot of them. They’ve got to get hearing dates in the next couple of weeks. The Chief Magistrate has organised about a two or three week stint in March, where they’re going to deal with everyone.
There’s a three day period where they legally decide on the green vegetable matter and consorting charges. And then they’ll go ahead and sentence everyone.
So it’s all pencilled in for a big chunk in March.
Does anyone have any idea what’s expected to happen?
No. There’s a lot discussion about the consorting charges. And whether they can prove the green vegetable matter. And what’s the footage like? The police haven’t handed it over yet. So a lot of people are waiting.
What effect has the loss of the Lane Boys had on Nimbin?
It’s huge. A big impact. That was the most open cannabis market for probably 30 years – Rainbow Lane was famous. It was very open and really respectable. And they were keeping drugs out of it.
In a way, the cops left it alone for the first six months of the year. But we didn’t know there was a bloody hidden camera in there. So it got very open and honest.
They were local boys pretty much. Well they’re not boys. They’re 20 to 35. And they know the town. They know the culture. They were generous to people who needed it.
But very importantly they kept other drugs out basically. They pretty much kept ice out of town.
The federal government has put in place a new system of medical marijuana. What’s your take on it?
Pathetic. It’s interesting that the Lambert’s have moved their money to America.
I went to the government talks, and honestly they’ve made it so tight, so strict and regulated that only big corporations are going to get a permit to grow. To get a licence to manufacture or research is going to be a real hassle.
They’ve made it extremely tight. And they’re only talking CBD really.
We’re all totally frustrated by it. It’s like the pharmaceutical industry got total control of it basically.
NSW is tied up in trials at the moment. What do you think about them?
You can’t say no. But meanwhile, what’s happening to everyone? Hundreds of thousands of people in Australia are using cannabis regularly. Very few of them are going to go on a placebo trial. Who wants to go on a double blind trial if you’ve got epilepsy? Every seizure does brain damage.
So we’re totally frustrated by Mike Baird and his trials. They’re slow. They’re small. And what are you doing meanwhile about people who are using now? Where are they supposed to get supply from?
He’s given the police a bit of discretion, so they’re not busting genuine medical people. But where are they supposed to get it from? They’re hammering anyone who sells it.
What’s the new legalised system going to mean for these small operations who are already out there helping people in need?
Like us? We’re waiting to get busted I suppose.
They’re thinking that they’ll get legal supply happening later next year. Well, when that happens – when supply starts really being available – I suspect they’ll just send their armies in on people like us.
But I really don’t know. I think we’re all praying that some sanity will come to the surface between now and then.
There’s been a blitz on roadside drug testing in the Northern Rivers region. What’s happening in the local area? And what effect is it having on the community?
It’s had a huge effect on our community. On the whole of the Northern Rivers for a year now.
People are regularly getting bust. Lots of people have worked out ways they think might work around it. You’re eating Fisherman’s Friends, orange juice or coffee – whatever.
But it’s seems that the first test is really unreliable. So there’s no guarantees how efficient it is. And once you’ve registered positive on the first test you’re stuffed. Because the second test is the same as the third, which they send to a lab – 98 percent of people have come back positive.
It picks up a tiny trace of pot. You might have smoked a joint two weeks before, or a month before. Or been in a room with your old man smoking. Once you go down on the first test, you’re history.
The magistrates have pretty much become sympathetic with it in Lismore. Sometimes you lose your licence for three months – some people don’t. But everywhere else you lose your licence for three or six months. Which is huge for country people.
So a lot of people who I know – evening tokers – have actually stopped smoking.
We’ve got more car accidents than ever up here. The road tolls up. I can’t say it’s contributed. But it’s certainly isn’t helping.
I know a lot of people who don’t smoke now during the day, and they’re much more anxious. They’re worse drivers.
If you do smoke, you’re terrified if you see a cop. So I actually think it’s contributed to more anxiety.
The Nimbin HEMP Embassy has been around since 1992. What’s the purpose of this institution?
It was all about changing the laws.
I first smoked pot a long time ago and loved it immediately. Realised it works for me, whatever it was doing. I didn’t quite twig it was a medicine at the time.
But I think the whole of the Northern Rivers, and in particular Nimbin, has had people like me gravitating towards it for forty years now. So we’ve got a huge community of cannabis users and everyone supports each other and sticks with each other.
The general awareness of prohibition – how it came about and how good cannabis is – has just infuriated us here. There wouldn’t be many people in the Nimbin community who support illegal cannabis, including all the straights and locals. We’re a well drug educated community.
You’re the president of the Australian HEMP party. How did that party come about?
It was an Adelaide crew of people who kicked it off. Twenty years ago or so. And again, I think it was just a general frustration by pot smokers. We must be able to get the law changed. I think people are going crazy with prohibition. It’s a real injustice.
The HEMP party is just an extension of the same thing. We’re trying to get the issue on the agenda. We might have even got elected. But now they’ve changed the rules, I think there’s very little chance.
It’s really just an extension of what we’re doing here. Trying to be political. Trying to reach out at election time. But it’s only a big thing when the elections come around.
We do have about 7,000 members. And I think it’s great to have the group, because pot smokers are criminals. They’re outsiders. It’s nice to have a group of fellow conspirators, if you like, people who understand.
The wider community is just cluing in to the benefits of cannabis. In your opinion, why is a plant that has so many different uses and beneficial qualities illegal?
Money. It’s all about money and profit.
I’ve talked to herbalists and one hundred years ago, cannabis was in the majority of medicines.
It’s a fantastic all-rounder – a fantastic pain reliever. Anyone can grow it in their backyards.
The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t want that out there. They stand to lose a lot of money. The police are the other big party behind keeping the laws there. They stand to lose a lot of jobs.
So it’s all about money. There’s big money in pain relief. People will spend their last dollar on it.
And lastly, you don’t see a difference between the medicinal use and recreational use of marijuana. You believe all usage is medicinal. But the law makes that distinction. We’re seeing a lot of headway with medicinal use in this country.
Do you think we’ll be seeing legalised recreational use of marijuana in Australia anytime soon?
I don’t know about soon. But I think it’s inevitable in the long run. I kind of have to believe that. The truth will come to the surface.
It’s a medicinal herb. That’s my understanding. And I think even alcohol used properly is a relaxant and medicinal.
For me, the whole use of it is medicinal.
All drug use should not be a crime. It’s really essentially about people trying to feel better. Have a good day. Have less pain. And I think that should all be a health issue and treated as such.
And let’s get quality control in there, so people know what they’re getting, instead of buying stuff on the black market.
Thanks very much for speaking with us today Michael. And good luck with your cause going into the future.
It’s been a real pleasure.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.