In a way, Nimbin is like any other small town in Australia.
It’s out in the middle of nowhere flanked by quaint outback “cities” like Lismore, where hookers wait outside of the one hotel right around the corner from the gas station and the place’s two bars. The landscape around these towns is staggeringly beautiful and mountainous for the region, with monolithic shards of mystical, volcanic rock scattered around the grassy, cow-filled knolls.
Nimbin itself is always unusually bustling, with locals filling the cafes and visitors wandering up and down the streets. But there’s more to its tourism than just its natural surroundings: it’s the one town in Australia where weed is basically legal. Though not codified by any laws the way that pro-pot spaces are in America, cops and smokers usually co-exist in harmony—or at least in relative détente.
It was a pilgrimage to get to the town, driving a halting and nearly dead 1994 Ford Fiesta with a manual transmission and a piss-covered rat’s nest somewhere in the body. I parked in the town’s one lot, which was flanked by young men selling weed and chickens strutting between holes in the wire fences.
“No, I’m good,” I said, used to deflecting offers in fear of the cops. “Actually,” I backtracked, “How much is an eighth?”
After I paid them they took out a giant bowl of loose nugs and doled out just enough into an oversized Ziploc bag. I took the precious commodity from them and rolled it up into a small package to shove into my bag, discrete enough just in case some overzealous cop decided that today was the day to bust tourists.
Although there is a newly developed framework for Australian medical marijuana on the books as of October 31, 2016, there are still controlled substances acts in place across the country. Granted, possession of small amounts of weed generally carries a relatively small fine—less than $500—and police activity focuses on cutting the sources of supply, which in Australia is mainly biker gangs (“bikies”).
Legislation trying to regulate bikie activity usually ends up affecting non-gang-affiliated Australians, though. Such is the case with New South Wales—home of Sydney—passing a set of legislation called the Serious Crime Prevention Orders and Criminal Legislation Amendment bills in 2016. The gist of the laws is that someone can be put under five-year police surveillance and restricted movement for essentially any reason, including a charge of which the person has been acquitted, with the speculation that the person will commit crimes in the future. And so even though laws on the book about cannabis may be relatively lax compared to other places, arrests for possession can still end up affecting a person’s life if the crime is interpreted as the first of a set of future actions.
In Nimbin, it’s easy to forget that there are any laws at all restricting marijuana.
After being sold the eighth I headed up a small hill to the main street, a place populated by classical 1970s-style hippies walking between coffee shops and small stores. In between the small marketplaces and art galleries is the Nimbin Hemp Embassy, which functions as a community and art center and holds regular workshops. People were sitting drinking espresso and smoking joints, passing toddlers around in an “it takes a village” sort of manner. There weren’t any cops to be seen, with the unspoken agreement that as long as there was no selling on the main street, they’d stay off of it.
But there has been recent clashes over cannabis in Nimbin.
It’s not always like this; even in such a chill spot, tensions have a way of flaring. In August, 29 born-and-bred Nimbin men were arrested for selling weed. In a sweep so unusually large that it garnered the men their own moniker—the “Lane Boys”—the group of 20-somethings was brought in front of a magistrate and given largely suspended sentences. Townspeople including Jan Levy, whose two sons were implicated in the bust, saw the police action as wholly unnecessary.
“Now I realize the authorities [had] become annoyed at Nimbin flaunting the rules, but […] medicinal use is what attracts many people to come and buy from the ‘Lane Boys.’ It also is part of the town’s tourist attractions,” says Levy.
This bust follows a rash of similar police actions taken against residents in 2016, when the laneway where I’d bought the 1/8 was filmed by police for six months. 11 people were arrested for dealing. For all of their seeming tolerance, the cops still seem to seek regular vengeance against local dealers whenever they feel like it. Tourists are rarely if ever implicated in these sweeps.
Even in light of the yearly raids, Nimbin’s short memory for punitive measures allows it to return to an inexplicable air of calm and peace when the police aren’t around. Its isolation makes it feel like an oasis between dusty plains and green fields, a sudden burst of life in the middle of endless identical country towns. Townspeople largely insist that the marijuana in Nimbin is wholly for medical purposes, but it’s clear that plenty of folks are happy to live in a locale with a definite recreational air to it. Residents can’t necessarily admit to it in a place where the police consistently breathe down their backs, but Nimbin is nothing if not a model for the tolerant, self-sufficient, and chill recreational spaces that, no matter what the cops want, are likely to be coming in Australia’s future.