The New South Wales town of Nimbin is a throwback to the seventies, complete with brightly-painted buildings, scores of people wearing tie-dye, and shops full of hemp products.
The first clue was the tour operator, who gleefully rubbed his hands together when I told him I was going to Nimbin. “Ooh, naughty, naughty Nimbin,” he said with a thick British accent that made him sound like a character from Harry Potter.
It was my first trip to Byron Bay, a holiday town on the far north coast of New South Wales, and I was keen to check out the sights. I was trying to decide between kayaking with dolphins or horseback riding on the beach when someone suggested I take a day trip.
He said Nimbin was a cute town, with really amazing waterfalls along the way, and the tour included a barbecue lunch. For me, the equation is simple: waterfalls + food = yes please. When the bus rolled up the next morning, decked in rainbow colours with Bob Marley thumping from the speakers, I wondered what I was getting myself into. I clambered on board with a group of bubbly backpackers from Canada, the UK and China, and we merrily set about making friends as we set off.
About 90 minutes later, we cruised into Nimbin.
“Now, before you get off the bus,” the driver piped up with a sparkle in his eye, “I have to tell you that marijuana is illegal in the state of New South Wales. However, should you find any here, you need to be careful. It can be very strong.”
He proceeded to tell us a story about the time he had a tough, ex-army Israeli guy on board, who apparently believed there’s no such thing as being “too stoned”.
By midday, he was a mess.
“He thought everyone on board was a Palestinian, and they were all trying to kill him,” the driver said wryly.
“He sat beside me and sobbed all the way home.”
Nimbin itself is a throwback to the seventies. It’s extremely small, with brightly-painted buildings, scores of people wearing tie-dye, and shops full of hemp products, handicrafts and art.
I wandered into one store where a brightly-dressed woman was sitting out the front.
“Let me know if you need any help,” she said, with a wave of her hand.
Tucked inside was a discreet piece of paper with the word “cookies” scrawled in pen.
“Um, thanks,” I said.
It’s hidden, but open at the same time.The Hemp Embassy is one of many brightly-painted buildings in the NSW town of Nimbin.
T-shirts with cannabis leaves emblazoned on the front are for sale everywhere. There are posters on almost every power pole advocating for marijuana to be legalised. Some stores are filled with smoking paraphernalia. One shop explicitly asked patrons to avoid “stashing” on the back veranda, and there’s a “Hemp Embassy” in the main street.
The police station is at the end of the main street.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition.
Marijuana use and possession is illegal across Australia, but the penalties vary greatly from state to state. New South Wales and Victoria are moving toward legalisation of medical marijuana, which has proven to be effective in alleviating pain and conditions such as epilepsy. Minor offences have been decriminalised in the Northern Territory, ACT and South Australia. You might escape with a caution in Tasmania, but Western Australia takes a tough stance.
Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the active ingredient in cannabis. It can cause both euphoria and anxiety, as well as hallucinations in very high doses. It’s also addictive.
According to the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, it’s the most commonly used illicit substance in the country, with just under two million people taking it each year. Some studies, like this British one, actually suggest alcohol is more detrimental to health than pot.
For now, cannabis is a forbidden fruit.
According to the Australian Hemp Party, Australia wastes “millions of taxpayer dollars trying to enforce prohibition”, arguing that “a regulated market would redirect funding to eduction, health, and harm reduction”.
Curious, I visited the police station at Byron Bay to ask how it works. Clearly, they are aware of Nimbin and its naughty reputation. But do they do anything about it? Do they even care?
The female officer said: “Marijuana is illegal in the state of New South Wales”.
I pressed her, asking: “Yes, but how does it work in Nimbin?”
She looked me in the eye and repeated herself.
Obviously, she was in uniform and toeing the official line, but still. You can’t help but wonder.Nimbin’s Minyon Falls are spectacular but they’re not the main reason a lot of tourists head to this small NSW town.
Eventually, we boarded the bus and headed to the promised waterfall.