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Last Update: June 9, 2009 9:26 PM


MardiGrass began in 1993. There had already been a spontaneous demo in March of that year where the Police Station got pelted with eggs, tomatoes and toilet paper as a result of an undercover police blitz. That demonstration attracted bad publicity and Bob Hopkins called for an organised and peaceful Mayday Cannabis Law Reform Rally to protest march up the main street of Nimbin. He called it MardiGrass and we all hoped it would have the same political impact as the Mardi Gras in Sydney.

Bob was motivated by the injustice and negative consequences for the Nimbin community of Cannabis being illegal. Lots of people felt the same, and if they didn't Bob was on a mission to educate them. He was pretty much the only one organising, but everyone rallied that day. We were all with him. We rolled a giant joint of sheets stitched together over a bamboo frame and painted “Let it Grow” on the side.

Over a thousand people came they say. It was fantastic. We gathered down at the river as the poster said. There weren't many people at the rallying point and Bob was dressed as a Nun with a huge dented tuba that sounded like an old elephant when he blew it. We were worried there would not be many people marching, but we were not going to quit. The exuberant rabble headed off for the 300 metre journey up through the village main street and on to the Police station, blowing smoke as they went. It was while that extraordinary display of characters and costumes marched, that it happened. Slowly, all along the way, people joined in, the Rally getting bigger and bigger as it went through town, collecting virtually everyone, which is how it is here in drug educated Nimbin. So many people here know the law is wrong about cannabis. The Rally made the front page and the local TV news. The size of the rally was so empowering, and we all had such a good time, that we vowed on the sacred skull of the Plantem’s ancestor to do it every year until we were no longer classed as criminals.

The next year the Rally doubled in clouds of smoke and speeches and we had a better time than ever. The harvest had just happened, and we had a wonderful annual Pickers’ Ball! The Police left us alone that year, which was clearly the smart thing to do. I think most of them would have marched with us if they were allowed. The Nimbin community has many pot smokers or eaters, including a number of older people who have discovered it is good medicine for their aches and pains. The law that criminalises users has made the whole North Coast a popular refuge for pot users. It is accepted more here and better understood than in most country areas, and of course the plant can grow well here; acts of God, Police, native animals and thieves permitting.

The following year (1994) saw the national “Beyond Prohibition” Conference, an academic-style three day conference that attracted well known drug and drug-law-reform experts from around the world. A smaller Hemp Forum of some sort has been held every year since. The Plantem inspired the formation of the Jungle Patrol that year, and their role grew over following years. In 1995 the first Cannabis Growers Cup was held, and has been held ever since. Quickly a reputation for a great weekend spread amongst cannabis users across the globe. Soon Jack Herer, Dennis Peron, Ed Rosenthal, the Cannabis Culture crew from Canada and others visited and the MardiGrass reputation was established.

In 1995 the HEMP Party fielded Prohibition End as a candidate in the NSW elections. On the ballot paper the name, changed by deed poll, read “End, Prohibition.”

The fourth Mardi Grass (1996), was very important, in a number of ways. It was a five day event, in order to include Wednesday the 1st of May. It included the first Kombi Konvoy. We had to deal with the annual crowd of revellers and onlookers who easily blocked the only road through town, so the Hemp Olympix were born. With the coming Sydney 2000 Olympics in the news we wanted to do something educational as well as entertaining. For all those people who thought getting stoned meant getting wiped out we reckoned the "Growers Iron Person" obstacle course should counteract a bit of the reefer madness propaganda. I remember the session (or think I do!) when we came up with the idea, including the lantana tunnel complete with leeches and ticks, a tradition to this day. Joint rolling was clearly important knowledge to share, and the Orchy bottle "Bong Throw and Yell" took a while to catch on, but has now become a science, the local plumber becoming the champ after studying the hydro-dynamics involved. "Joint rolling" has since expanded to include the adverse conditions roll, (blindfolded to simulate darkness and a fan for wind) but the Hemp Olympix has retained the three original events as the mainstay. Other events come and go depending on the politics of the time. "Spot the Undercover" is always very popular, like the hemp rope "Tug of War", on again for 2007. We have at last got a new rope to replace the one that disappeared years ago! That was just what happened within the MardiGrass Organising Body (MOB), but nature also stepped in…...

Many of the early Mardi Grasses were wet, but 1996 was the wettest. After about five wet years in a row the farmers had started to rely on us to bring rain. We just moved as many events as possible into the Town Hall if it did. That has become "Plan-B" ever since for when it rains. In 1996 there was a record crowd, and it really bucketed down. It rained so much the village was cut off. After a couple of days the shop shelves started to look bare. The town was marooned with roads cut off in every direction. Rumour has it fifty pounds was consumed! I do know the footpath was covered in sleeping bodies and wet roaches. Toilet facilities were “strained”. Understandably many locals were upset by the prolonged invasion of freaks. Fortunately the heavens parted just in time for the Rally on the last day, the flood waters receded and everyone was able to go home after. The event had so over-run the village and the MardiGrass crew were so exhausted, that no one ever suggested a four or five day MardiGrass again. So it was that MardiGrass came to be held on the “First Weekend in May.”

We were even mentioned in Parliament. http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/PARLMENT/hansArt.nsf/V3Key/LA19960605031

In January of 1997 the Hemp crew made headlines when they chained themselves to the helicopters and vehicles used by the police, and invited the press along for the morning surprise. Helicopter raids stopped for awhile, but then resumed.

In 1999 the Cannabus, loaded with Hempsters, took the Big Joint to Bob Carr’s Drug Summit. The HEMP Party fielded candidates in the 2001 and 2004 elections.

In the year 2000, an attempt was made to establish Cannabis Cafes in Nimbin, as a response to the robust street dealing culture of that year. Locals felt, after discussions with area police, that this was approved, but in 2001 that illusion fell away when twenty nine police raided all of them in one day, and put an end to the experiment.

Things cruised along, as we tried to match publicity with expected numbers and avoid overloading the village resources. In 2004 a couple of police officers walked along with the parade, but late at night a few violent youths caused problems at the Doof, and the lower end of Cullen Street, assualting people at random.

A period of late night vandalism and violence followed, that abated as the perpetrators matured. During that time public and consultative committee meetings with police frequently requested increased LATE NIGHT policing, but this was not achieved. Instead we got more daytime policing, and more local police.

Somewhere along the way MardiGrass became an official event with Lismore City Council even if they won't mention it in their tourist brochure! The Council passed our Development Application, which is valid for five years at a time.

Chibo and the Ganja Faeries started taking the Big Joint to the Sydney Mardi Gras. In 2005 we had the Marihuana Music Awards kick off at MardiGrass, and had a peaceful time of it in the village, but the Olympic Torch Bearer in the Rally was pursued by officers eager to inspect the decorations on his garments. Apparently he eluded them. Out on the roads, a cross border Operation Viking was underway checking cars coming to, and leaving Nimbin. The Kombi Konvoy was pulled over and breath tested. They passed. Sniffer dogs were reportedly used by Queensland police on the Numinbah Valley road late Sunday night to catch Queenslanders returning the back way.

Street surveillance cameras were installed along Cullen Street, and by 2006, were operational.

In 2006 local Nationals MP Thomas George claimed Nimbin was the next Cronulla riot waiting to happen, and Labors Police Minister Scully agreed. We had 80 riot police stifling the event, police at Uki telling people that Nimbin was full or closed, and the event ran at a loss.

Afterwards we took the Big Joint to Canberra, and parked it on the Parliament House lawns. It was the Big Joint Embassy while it was there. The laws didn’t change, but we had a good time.

The four performance stages, many buskers, the Markets, Hemp Expo, Hemp Forum, Pot Art, Pot-art Tattoo, Poetry, Comedy, the Ganja Faeries and as always, the unpredictable, all come together to make Mardi Grass a major annual north coast event. This ‘007 year we've managed to get the poster out early and there's plenty of enthusiasm for MardiGrass XV, sponsored every year by the Nimbin HEMP Embassy. The MardiGrass Organising Body (MOB) have an expanding program at the moment which already includes joint rolling and bubble-bag classes, an expo of the latest hem-plastic products and even a proposal for hemp jelly wrestling!

There's something special about the gathering of thousands of people getting stoned together. You don’t need to smoke cannabis to feel the good vibes and, increasingly, many straight families visit to see what it’s all about for themselves. The pounds of pot consumed have made sure that MardiGrass has had an extremely peaceful history. It was false information that brought the riot squad from Sydney last year. The only riot here was a riot of colour!

The HEMP Embassy has grown over the years alongside the MardiGrass, all of it based on volunteer energy. Volunteers are the real heroes of MardiGrass, because without the volunteers, it would not be possible. Firstly, there are the volunteers who work all year in the HEMP Embassy, and then there are the volunteers who help throughout MardiGrass. Some volunteers go above and beyond the call of duty. You see them at every MardiGrass. We wish to thank all those unknown volunteers that have helped through the years. There are also some year round volunteers that have made remarkable contributions.

Bob started the event, was the first Plantem, and initially carried the load of organising. He also contributed greatly to other Nimbin community organisations. Elspeth Jones has produced great posters and artwork for the Hemp Embassy, MardiGrass, and many other local groups ever since we arrived in Nimbin. Chibo Mertineit organised the Hemp Olympix for years, and has been the Hemp Olympix torch runner and Cookie Man. The Ganja Faeries have danced at the head of the Parade and supported MardiGrass and the Embassy for years. They set the pace of the Protest Rally Parade. Andy Putnam volunteers every year to man information booths. “Chicken” George has manned the shop and worn the Plantem uniform proudly for years. Simon Cass organised the 1994 “Beyond Prohibition” conference. Comedians "S" and Glover commentate on the Olympix each year. Alan Morris organises the Kombi Konvoy. Andrew founded the Medical Cannabis Information Service. Gary "Big Bong" handles the Million Man Marihuana March, and tries to sell franchises for the "Big Bong Burger Bar" chain. Lisa Yeates played a gracious Princess Anne for us. There are many others, and sorry to those I have missed in the moment, but these are the sort of contributions that make MardiGrass possible.

MardiGrass has avoided becoming a big money event, as we are determined to keep the focus on it being a protest about the cannabis laws. The $20 all weekend armband pass means everyone has access. If you really don't have the dollars you can join the volunteers, a critical ingredient in the MardiGrass recipe. Its a recipe that has evolved over 15 years. Many characters only visit Nimbin on the first weekend in May each year. Its not only a cannabis cultural gathering but an annual reunion of friends who have something in common.

Without the volunteers, well, you know what other festivals cost. A lot more than $20. Now that $20 can make a big difference if everyone pays it, so if you come, please buy an armband for admission to the official events. It means a lot to next year’s MardiGrass.

If we can’t end prohibition, how about just getting the price down to $5 a gram? Just kidding. Join us this year and every year, until we are no longer criminals, to protest against these bad laws.


PostScript: The Area Command told the Press there would be more police, and told us there would be less. Well, only half the number of police were in Nimbin, and the Winnebago made it's Nimbin debut, but it was one of the best MardiGrass yet. What they did do, was make as many small busts as they could Friday and late Sunday to get arrest numbers up. On Monday morning a negative press emphasised the arrest numbers and carried the suggestion that the Festival attracted harder drugs. They did not mention Area Command's praise for the organisers. The media was unfavourable, but the MardiGrass itself was everything we could have hoped for.

Thank you all for that.

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