Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Finding pot at end of the rainbow | Northern Rivers News | Local News in Northern Rivers | Northern Rivers Echo

It isn't every day that you meet a former stockbroker turned hippie.

Michael Balderstone outside the Nimbin Museum.

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 hallucinating."

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."