Vote 1 HEMP in the Eden-Monaro Byelection: An Interview With Candidate Michael Balderstone

by Paul Gregoire

HEMP Party president Michael Balderstone wants real cannabis law reform on the agenda in this nation’s federal chambers of parliament. And that’s why the veteran campaigner is running in the 4 July Eden-Monaro byelection.

Right now, Australia is noticeably lagging behind most other comparative English-speaking nations when it comes to legalising the plant that not only has recreational and medicinal benefits, but a wide range of environmentally friendly industrial uses.

But, after having campaigned for cannabis reform as part of the HEMP Party since 1992, Balderstone can now see a greenlight looming at the end of the tunnel, as on 31 January, the ACT legalised the personal possession and use of cannabis, as well as limited homegrown.

“Why can’t we all grow a couple of plants like in Canberra?” the just turned 72-year-old asks. “If we were allowed homegrown for personal use across Australia, we could save billions in healthcare and policing costs.”

Regulate and tax it

While a lot of Australians might not be aware of it, New Zealand is holding a referendum on 19 September, which will involve the entire nation voting on whether they want recreational cannabis to be legalised. And the laws are already drafted and publicly available to peruse.

While over in the US, it’s now legal to recreationally consume cannabis in 11 states, including California: the fifth largest economy in the world. And in Colorado, where the plant’s been available retail since 2014, there’s now been over $8 billion worth of legal cannabis-related transactions.

Then there’s Trudeau’s Canada, where the recreational use of the herb has been legal nationwide since October 2018. Indeed, local producer Canopy Growth said on Tuesday that it expects the $10 billion global market of today, to burgeon into a $70 billion market by 2023.

And even though Canberrans aren’t on board with the global green rush as yet, their ability to legally possess up to 50 grams of cannabis, grow two plants, and smoke it all at home does show that it’s possible to legalise pot in this country without the sky falling in.

It’s high time

Balderstone asserts that like the US and Canada, there should be a legalised and regulated cannabis market operating nationwide in Australia. And at a time when fossil fuel industries are not only destroying the planet, but also going automated, cannabis means real green jobs.

The long-term Nimbin resident – who’s indicated he’ll be moving to Eden-Monaro if elected – doesn’t envisage a legal cannabis market monopolised by corporations, like the current medicinal cannabis industry in this country. Balderstone wants licensed small growers involved.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to the president of HEMP about the legal system in Canberra that’s operating right next door to Eden-Monaro, the environmental uses of the plant and why it’s time to take a leaf from some of our less conservative neighbours when it comes to cannabis law reform.

Firstly, Michael, if you’re elected to the federal seat of Eden-Monaro in the 4 July byelection what will it mean for the people of Australia? What will finally having a HEMP Party representative in federal parliament do for this nation?

We want to try and get this on the agenda, because it’s just not heard. It probably doesn’t help that most of the cannabis experts are criminals.

The medical cannabis program at the moment is ridiculous. And if I did get elected, we could get that back on the agenda. We could also sit down and talk sanely about making cannabis medicine grown in Australia.

Then there’s the drug driving laws, which need changing because there are considerable amounts of people losing their licences, even though they’re not driving under the influence.

In New Zealand, they have a better process. If they fail the saliva test, then they have to undergo a field sobriety test. And if they fail that, then there’s a blood test. So, you must fail all three steps to be prosecuted.

And with HEMP in parliament, we’d probably get cannabis law reform right across Australia, certainly for personal amounts.

It should no longer be a criminal offence. And the industry should be regulated.

The electorate of Eden-Monaro is right next to the ACT, which is the only jurisdiction in the country where the personal possession and use of cannabis is legal.

The bill that brought the reforms in was introduced by Labor MLA Michael Pettersson.

The changes have been in effect since 31 January, and there’s been no mention of any issues. What do you think about what’s happening in the capital territory?

It’s one of the reasons we ran, because the Eden-Monaro electorate surrounds Canberra, and they’re allowed to grow up to two plants, or four per household.

I really admire how they got it happening. And it’s excellent the feds have stopped making a noise about it after their initial hoo-ha.

We’ve always found the federal police in Canberra to be very cool, very tolerant and very sensible.

What they’ve got though is limited. You can’t buy seeds. There’s no dispensary. Where do you buy it if you don’t grow it yourself?

But, I really respect the effort they made. And the start he made. It really has been an influence. We probably wouldn’t be running, except that it’s surrounding the ACT.

In Eden-Monaro, we would do better. That was the first step. We would go one further and let people grow a couple of plants themselves everywhere.

As you’ve just indicated, HEMP wants cannabis to be legalised nationwide. How does your party propose this would work?

California legalised medical cannabis in 1996. So, we’ve got over 20 years of other people’s experience to learn from. We can cherry-pick the best of the best from all the different states in America that have used different systems.

I like the idea of licensing small growers. There are a hundred thousand jobs waiting to happen.

There are a hundred thousand jobs just in Colorado, which has a population the size of NSW. They’ve already made a billion dollars in tax. Last year, I think the turnover was $1.4 billion just in cannabis.

I would license small growers. You pay for a licence to be a supplier. And people should be able to grow at least six plants, like in California. That has become a pretty accepted amount.

Instead of giant semi-pharmaceutical companies getting huge, expensive licences, which is the path we’re going down now, we should have small licensed growers.

There’s “hemployment” opportunity here that’s massive.

There was a $22 million cannabis crop bust south east of Lismore a fortnight ago. Meanwhile, the federal government has made it easier for licensed producers to export legal cannabis products overseas.

What does this situation indicate?

That bust indicates black market demand. It was a massive crop. It looked excellent. The people knew what they were doing.

What a waste. It’s probably all been burnt. That was fantastic medicine gone, while we pay for it to come in from Canada.

Virtually, all the medical cannabis that’s legally available now is from Canada. It’s imported and grown in doors. And we’re probably the sunniest country in the world to grow cannabis in. It’s crazy.

That big crop for me indicates how much demand there is in the black market. It’s huge.

So, you’re saying the medicinal cannabis patients in Australia are relying on imported products, yet the few legal products that are being produced here are being exported overseas?

It’s crazy. I wonder how much the people who are organising all this actually know about the cannabis market in Australia. I’m sure they don’t use cannabis. They don’t know the culture.

It’s just business. These people are just thinking about money and business. They’re not thinking compassion or health.

Mr Hunt will happily say they’ve dealt with cannabis and made medical cannabis legal. But, what about the 99 percent of people using cannabis that can’t access it legally through doctors.

And there are lots of stories where the available legal products aren’t working well, especially CBD products.

It would be so easy to produce, prepare and supply in Australia. On a CBD level, it’s ridiculous.

The environment is an issue that’s front and centre these days. The PM is hellbent on destroying it. What could legal cannabis, as well as hemp products, do to help prevent the destruction of the planet?

The whole carbon emissions would be better, as well as woodchip. We’ve known for years that cannabis and bamboo are the fastest growing biomasses on the planet.

Hemp has that unique long, strong and flexible fibre. So, we’re chipping our forests, when we could be growing two crops of hemp a year.

It’s a fantastic building product. The hemp seed is a fantastic nutrient. It’s high protein and rich in omegas. It’s as good as fish oil. They are a fraction different, but the natural formed omegas are even better than the fish, and we need to help the oceans.

There are a million reasons why it can help the environment. It sucks toxins out of the soil. It was used all around Chernobyl.

One hundred and fifty to two hundred years ago, it was the most grown plant on the planet for such a variety of reasons. And those same reasons are why it was made illegal.

It is all about business. Take cannabis, the most useful plant off the market, and the pharmaceutical and petrochemical industries have a free go.

And lastly, the entire nation of Canada has legalised cannabis, over a fifth of all Americans live in a state where they can legally use it recreationally, and NZ is about to hold a referendum on legalising cannabis later this year.

Michael, why isn’t Australia responding to this global trend more promptly? Why are we still behind the eight ball on this matter?

We’ve got an incredibly conservative government. He’s a Christian. I’m not sure if he doesn’t think the earth was only formed several thousand years ago.

The police and the pharmaceutical industry hold enormous sway here. And unlike America, we don’t have a bill of rights. So, we could never vote to get it on the agenda.

If we’re allowed to vote on it. And had public education around that. I’m sure we would be moving much closer.

Here’s hoping the New Zealand referendum is a yes. It would be a great start.

Author

Paul Gregoire

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.

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