The History of MardiGrass – Cannabis Law Reform Rally & Gathering
The Aquarius Festival
In May of 1973, the forth biannual series of “The Aquarius Festival” was held in Nimbin. The four Aquarius Festival’s were organised by the National Union of Australian University Students (NUAUS) in an effort to celebrate alternative thinking and sustainable lifestyles. The first was held Sydney, the second in Melbourne, the third was in the country’s capitol, Canberra and last but not least was held in the small NSW town of Nimbin.
After seeing an ABC documentary about rural towns that were dying, the NUAUS stumbled upon the old dairy village of Nimbin. “With derelict shops selling for just a few hundred dollars and dirt-cheap land surrounded by magnificent rainforests, they decided it was the perfect spot for their alternative lifestyle festival.”
The Nimbin Aquarius Festival is often described as Australia’s equivalent to Woodstock and is known as the birthplace for Australia’s hippie movement. The festival changed the small country town forever. Prior to the festival, the town was experiencing a severe economic decline, however, many of the hippies that visited and joined in on the festivities decided to unpack their bags and move there, purchasing cheap land and creating communal living together.
Unlike other festivals of the time, Aquarius didn’t showcase big name artists, the appeal was all about lifestyle, creating sustainable futures and speaking on issues they felt passionate about. Workshops were held for people to share skills and knowledge. The festival was the first of its kind where the organisers sought permission from the Aboriginal People to celebrate on their land.
Southern Cross University's Dr Rob Garbutt said from an event that seemed like chaos, emerged all sorts of organised activities that still exist today such as organic food, cooperatives and multiple occupancy living.
Now you have some background on the town and the people that decided to populate Nimbin, lets talk MardiGrass.
The two decades that followed the Aquarius Festival, there were numerous arrests and raids in Nimbin including the Tuntable Falls Commune, which was raided and burnt down by police. In March of 1993, the people of Nimbin had had enough. Some locals took part in a protest outside of the police station where they threw toilet paper and eggs. The media picked up the story and described the protest and the community in a less than favourable way. It was felt among the locals that a peaceful protest would be the way to go.
In early May, 1993, people gathered by the local creek for the rally. Bob Hawkins led this rally blowing on his tuba. There were only a small group of them playing instruments with signs in hands. As they walked and protested through the town, they noticed hundreds of people on the sides of the streets cheering them on! Little did leader Bob know, once the parade had passed these on lookers, they would join the back of the rally. By the time they had reached the town’s police station, there were reportedly almost a thousand protesters. Thanks to the media, filming the rally, police had no choice but to be peaceful.
Since that first rally in 1993, the Nimbin MardiGrass has annually celebrated in the town of Nimbin and they vow to continue until there is cannabis law reform.
MardiGrass Founder - Bob Hopkins
“Look, like I said, I’m a fuckin tyrant as an organiser. I’m a fucking loose cannon, Asperger’s, flyin off the handle person.”. - Bob Hopkins
Bob talks of his Asperger’s in his younger years, how he struggled to find his people, how he couldn’t connect with anyone or even talk to girls. Once he tried that first joint, the social anxieties went away and he was everything he ever wanted to be and capable of everything he ever wanted to do.
Bob founded The H.E.M.P. Embassy (Help End Marijuana Prohibition) in 1992. The embassy’s objectives are cannabis law reform through educating the community about the cannabis plant and hemp. The following year, as we know, the first MardiGrass rally happened.
Bob eventually found himself disagreeing with some of the messaging that the HEMP embassy was putting out. He cringes at the argument “that cannabis is a harmless plant, that will do marvels for you, that will save the world, and that everybody must get stoned”.
He believes that “like every substance, there is positive use [and] there is negative use”. He felt there was a need for him to say, hey you’ve got to be careful about how you promote the image of cannabis to the world. Bob is now a great advocate for sobriety and that there is life after marijuana.
Another point that he makes, that pulled him away from the HEMP Embassy was his thoughts on dealing. He does not support drug dealers and feels that dealers are exploiting the bad laws here in Australia. In saying that, Bob goes on to tell us that he grew and sold pot and used the money to start the embassy in his earlier years.
“I still think we need intelligent conversations about where do we go from here instead of still saying “the laws are wrong” “no, the laws are right!” “the laws are fuckin this” “the laws are that”, people make exaggerated claims for cannabis, cannabis is just something else in our lives that we may or may not encounter, we certainly won’t be lesser people because we haven’t tried cannabis. Cannabis suits some people, it suited me.”
Despite his sobriety, Bob still believes the laws need to change. He has however taken a step back from his heavy involvement.
“I'd been seeking an understanding community of like-minded souls and found it here. Nimbin is unique as the last bus stop for a lot of people who left mainstream looking for a more meaningful life.” - Michael Balderstone
Michael worked in London as a stock broker, it was after he made a 20-million-dollar deal that he realised, all he was doing was making the rich richer. Michael moved to Nimbin around 1983 after traveling the world for close to a decade to find himself, discovering the wonders of the cannabis plant along the way.
He found himself at home in the picturesque landscape that is Nimbin. He opened up a shop in the heart of the town where he collected second-hand treasures he found at the tip and displayed and sold the items in what he called “The Nimbin Museum”. While it was open, the Museum became somewhat of a hub amongst the people of Nimbin.
Michael found friends in Nimbin that shared his opinions on weed and prohibition. He was there for the first MardiGrass and felt the frustration the community had in response to the police raids that had gone too far.
He recalls “That first MardiGrass we did was a great day, I think 700 gathered and marched through Nimbin to the cop shop and we screamed and yelled, and we just basically got our frustration out I think, and it was such a good day we vowed, well we’ve gotta do this every year.” He goes on to say “in those first MardiGrass’, there was only one or two cops and I’ll always remember the freedom people felt, you know, pot smokers came from all over the place because you’d have this day in town where you really didn’t feel like a leper, you didn’t have to hide it, you didn’t have to be terrified your neighbour would dob you in, and there was an enormous empowerment in the whole thing.”.
Since that first year, in 1993, Michael has played a large part of the organisation of The H.E.M.P. Embassy and the MardiGrass Festival, not without issues along the way.
The first few years of MardiGrass he remembers as being peaceful, but that all changed when SBS did a documentary on the town and the festival. The documentary sparked outrage in parliament and the riot squads started. The organisers had to start charging entry and going more by the book to keep the peace with police.
Since its inception in May of 1993, the festival/protest has been held every year up until last year (thanks to Covid). This year it is back in full force, expecting a large crowd of fellow cannabis prohibition activists. So, if you’re in the area, make sure to show your support and visit the beautiful town of Nimbin and get in on the festivities including but not limited to; the Hemp Olympics, informational talks, comedy acts, burlesque performances and my personal favourite activity – the ‘tug of peace’, where stoners verse the police force in a big game of tug of war.
Just make sure to have a designated driver, be peaceful with the police [remember they are in a tough spot – they are doing their jobs - It is the politicians who make these laws, the police just enforce them] and stay safe.
Thanks for reading,
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