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News (Media Awareness Project) - Australia: Finding Pot At End Of The Rainbow
Title:Australia: Finding Pot At End Of The Rainbow
Published On:2011-12-15
Source:Northern River Echo, The (Australia)
Fetched On:2011-12-19 06:02:06

It isn't every day that you meet a former stockbroker turned hippie.
I'm sitting with Nimbin's unofficial mayor, Michael Balderstone, at
the Nimbin HEMP Embassy, watching locals and tourists wandering past
colourful painted shopfronts. The little village of Nimbin has a
unique laid-back lifestyle and it's going on around us. People are
drinking coffee, chatting with others as they pass by, some are
shopping for organic vegetable seedlings and hemp-based soaps.

For the past 20 years, Michael has been the public face of the North
Coast's Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) movement. As the
president of the Nimbin HEMP Embassy and the founder of the Nimbin
Museum, Michael is a self-proclaimed hippie and advocate for all
things hemp; but his life wasn't always about living the alternative
lifestyle and promoting decriminalisation. Before finding his way to
the North Coast 26 years ago, Michael spent his school days at a
private boarding school in Victoria before heading off to find his
fame and fortune as a high flyer on the stockmarket.

"In the early 70s, the Poseidon venture was taking off and nickel
mining shares went from $2 to $200," Michael said. "All over the
country people were flocking to the investment business to make their
fortunes on the mining boom. I was a country boy and I thought I was
missing out on the fun and games, so I went to a firm in Melbourne and
got a job as a stockbroker. I wore suits, had a secretary and felt
important in the city."

He obviously wasn't too bad at his job because Michael was sent to
London to receive further training, where he also took philosophy and
art classes at night.

"That's when I started thinking," Michael said. "One day I was ringing
up Swiss banks telling them how to make more millions and thought, 'I
want to do something more useful, there's got to be more to life than
this'. I was asking questions, 'Is there a God? Is there order in
life?' My boss told me I should go into the church, but I thought I
could find the answer myself."

Michael resigned from his job and, with a group of friends, bought an
old police van and drove overland to India on the London to Kathmandu
trail. It was then that he became one of the long-haired, bead-wearing
types he'd previously only seen on the television.

"I went away a stockbroker and I came back a hippie," Michael laughed.
"I had seen through society, its values and the games people play. I
kept travelling east, searching for meaning, through Syria, Turkey,
Jordan and Iran."

For a year, he didn't cut his hair and in Afghanistan, he discovered
the power of marijuana.

"I'd smoked before but never felt much of an effect," Michael said.
"One day, we were camped in our van in an orange orchard and the
caretaker offered us a smoke of hash from a hookah... and I came up

Michael spent many more years travelling the world on his journey to
find answers, often finding doors opening through his experiences with
drugs, but also through meditation and fasting. In Greece, Michael
found a guru and started meditating.

"He taught me to separate from my emotional self," Michael said. "I
realised I was on my own. I am the only one who knows myself and I had
to face who I was. I cried, and I hadn't cried for years. I was a good
Aussie bloke who'd gone to boarding school and the shutters were down.
I got feeling back.

"It was a bit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. My brain
was trying to work out God. Western minds find it hard to accept there
is not an answer. The truth is there - you can't lock it in a box, but
kids can see it. There is order in the apparent chaos. We are evolving
and heading somewhere and there are big changes afoot."

In 1985, when Michael moved to Nimbin, it seemed he had finally found
where he belonged. He bought a share in a community in the Tweed
Valley, built a house out of recycled junk, put up solar panels and
started a family.

"I've always loved the hippie dreaming, trying to live together in
nature," Michael said. "Travelling in third world countries really
opened my eyes to how people can live a lifestyle, alternative to the
nuclear family model. The North Coast is like a new age community for
us. I dreamed of finding it. It's the pot at the end of the rainbow;
no gold, but plenty of pot."

He rented a shop in town for $35 per week and opened a second-hand
goods business. Seven years later, when the local council finally
sealed the road into Nimbin town, tourists started visiting, asking
about the unusual looking village. In 1992, along with a group of
friends and artists, Michael called a community meeting and the idea
to transform his shop into the Nimbin Museum was born.

"We wanted to make a visual expression of hippie thinking and what
Nimbin was about," Michael said. "We wanted to show the timelines and
history, from a perspective other than the mainstream

white fellas'. It wasn't until the hippies came after the Aquarius
Festival that the forests came back and Nimbin was re-born."

For the past 20 years, the museum has grown, changed and survived.
Michael hopes that it will continue to stay afloat, as it costs about
$100 per day to run and relies entirely on public donations.

"The museum is where my heart is," Michael said. "It represents my
journey of inner unfolding; looking for peace of mind, a new way of
living... it's taken longer than I thought."

After a long period of taking drugs, Michael slowly became aware of
the importance of ending prohibition.

"I met Bob Hopkins who was rallying to end prohibition on his own,"
Michael said. "Back then, in Nimbin, it was mostly heroine addicts
selling pot for their habit. The kids and tourists were starting to
smoke dope and the market was growing. I wanted to understand what was
happening there more and I'm still there, doing it now."

In 1992, the volunteer-run Nimbin HEMP (Help End Marijuana
Prohibition) Embassy was also born. Through the embassy, the annual
Nimbin MardiGrass 'Let It Grow' May Day rally and street parade began.
Next year will be its 20th anniversary.

"I think this so-called global war on drugs is actually a cultural
war, against changing consciousness and other ways of seeing reality,"
Michael said. "I see the dominant culture getting lost in decadence
and it doesn't want us questioning its consequences and values, which
is exactly what using the traditional 'knowledge plants' do.

"These mind-altering insightful plants were used by our ancestors for
millennia as sacred plants. Remember the CIA experimented with pot as
a 'truth drug'? "Dominant culture is unsustainable and needs everyone
working and consuming - whether they are enjoying themselves or not
has become secondary. "Fortunately science is now beginning to catch
up to what the hippies 'saw' as the truth when we were tripping years
ago. The old cultures had medicine men who guided trips whereas we
stumbled along in the dark. My first mushroom trip, in Bali, blew my
mind. I needed a decade wandering around the planet to work out what
to do next after that. In 50 years, we'll look back and say 'What have
we done? We are working against nature'."

After years of campaigning against prohibition in Australia, Michael
is happy to see legislative changes for cannabis reform taking place
in America.

"In California, they may vote to treat pot like wine," Michael said.
"There are regulation controls and it's becoming de-glamourised. It's
the illegality of it that makes it glamorous. Decriminalising pot
would take the paranoia and fear out of it. Here, I see refugees from
the war on drugs; people are afraid and smoke in back lanes. What is
prohibition achieving? "We still have issues and that's all the more
reason to take it out of the illegal market. We need regulations and
truthful education. Cannabis is a strong drug, it stimulates the
imagination and doesn't suit everyone. We need to be able to do the
research into it, that's what we need."

As a vocal campaigner, Michael has often had opportunity to confront
politicians with the prohibition issue. When he met with former Prime
Minister John Howard, Michael offered him a piece of hemp fibre to
look at, but Mr Howard declined the offer with a clenched fist and
refused to have anything to do with it.

"If you believe in something, you need to speak up for it," Michael
said. "I'm happy to be a voice but I feel shy of the public beating
around the ears I've had over the years. I've been blamed by some for
turning Nimbin into the marijuana capital of Australia. I'm shocked at
how few people want to publicly say 'end marijuana prohibition'. We
need more people in suits to stand up for it. Kids still get kicked
out of home for smoking and people still believe the reefer madness
guff. "Most other hippie ideas that were crazy 40 years ago are
becoming mainstream now, but the drug war remains, along with other
wars. Hopefully we'll learn before we destroy ourselves."
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