The first Drug War Freedom Ride


The Big Joint in the Big Smoke

Thursday 7 September and the Nimbin HEMP Embassy's 14 meter Big Joint looked elegantly long and thin as it lay upon the roof of the former Sydney Harbour ferry, MV Mulguy (renamed for the occasion the Mull-up-guys). Smoke puffed out of it and, to viewers in the high rise offices and residential units past which it cruised, the Big Joint offered a uniquely Nimbinesque invitation.

In the scale of the mighty Harbour Bridge and glass towers of the Sydney CBD, it was a wee joint of the kind a thoughtful and subversive hostess might lay on the dinner table as an unspoken invitation to a guest to lighten up.

Here was myth making high art as political message. Along its sides the Big Joint bore a peace dove bearing a cannabis leaf and trailing brightly painted slogans: "LET IT GROW!" on one side "THE LAW IS THE CRIME" on the other.

The Big Joint is the central icon of Nimbin's annual hemp harvest festival and the "Let It Grow" Mardi Grass Parade in which it is born down the main street by an exuberant mob of 30 or so volunteers. Traditionally it pauses along the way to make a call at the door of the Nimbin Police Station, a salute to Bob Hopkins who on April Fools Day 1992 went to that door dressed as a jester, and in the witness of then solicitor, now magistrate, David Heilpern, and the local TV news cameras, smoked a joint. The action got Bob remanded in custody in Grafton Jail for two weeks and added rocket fuel to the fire of cannabis law reform in Nimbin and Lismore.

The Big Joint has many fans. It is play power guffawing, and wahoo at its wackiest. In a crowd its very presence brings laughter and smiles. Most of the year it hangs from the ceiling in the Nimbin HEMP Embassy but it also has adventures when it goes places to do things. In May 1999 when it headed to Sydney on the roof of the Cannabus to put cannabis law reform on the agenda of the NSW Drug Summit, it had most of Sydney laughing at its misadventures.


The master of the MV Mulguy is Tony Spanos, curator of the Graffiti Hall of Fame, bane of South Sydney Council, and patron of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Victoria Park, Glebe. Tony was at the wheel of the Mulguy demonstrating his driving skills and a small bunch of Nimbin folk sported themselves about the decks. Max Stone and Dave Cannabis circled taking photos from a yacht skippered by a former Sydney cannabis cafˇ proprietor, known as Amsterdam Michael.

Lisa Yeates, who had recently returned from Canada where she had performed as Princess Anne as a guest of Cannabis Culture magazine at the Montreal International Hemp Festival, was there dressed in a glowing green silk suit and hat, and giving royal waves. Dressed in a victory laurel, joggers, and satin Oz-flag bedecked sports shorts, was Chibo Mertineit. Chibo had returned a week before from cannabis law reform advocacy in Berlin. He carried the HEMP Olympix torch.

The Big Joint on Sydney Harbour had been the vision of Michael Balderstone who was running about talking on a cell phone and rigging banners. "It's just like playing pirates", he said as we tied a "Save Native Forests/Grow Hemp!" flag to the bow pole.

The Australian cannabis law reform movement had come to pre-Olympics Sydney but we were few, we were disparate and we were more myth than media.

The Sydney we passed in the ferry was as huge and as it was uninterested in our passage and our cause. We got a few thumbs up from the crews of passing boats; some tourists around Pier One took some photos; the Sydney Daily Telegraph published a coloured photo for one early edition the next day so the folks back in Nimbin got to see it; and Radio MMM broadcast an interview. But mostly we were ignored by the keyed-up, pre-Olympic Sydney media.

Yet the Big Joint heaving to off Kirribilli House, the harbour-side Sydney residence of the Prime Minister, and providing a backdrop to the VIP garden party in progress there, is one of those stories that will be told and retold.

Getting the Big Joint onto Sydney Harbour had been the consuming vision of Michael Balderstone, a founder of the Nimbin HEMP Embassy. He had been talking it up for over a year. Organising anything in Nimbin is, as Cannabis Dave says, like herding cats. It was a miracle that a new Big Joint got made and a miracle that it got to Sydney. It was a miracle that Tony Spanos, cat of cats, arrived with the MV Mulguy and it was a miracle that the stoned and disparate group who turned up for the event were able to stevedore the monster joint aboard the Mulguy in between the dockings of the regular ferries at the McMahons Point jetty.

Michael was smiling lightly, humble in the triumphant manifestation of a vision splendid. The psychic cost of the exercise had been enormous and he was still copping it on board. I watched as he took a cell phone tongue lashing from Robin Harrison for "not being professional". An appointment to pick up performers at a jetty had been missed. What delusion to expect such a chaotic mission to keep appointments!

Jab, a principal rigger in the exercise, was also spitting fire and went ashore from the Mulguy at the first opportunity. Maybe it was because I objected to him cutting up my ropes for the job.

And me, I had been no help either. For the three days prior I had put myself incommunicado, taking refuge in a friend's Bondi Beach apartment doing nothing more strenuous than boiling up Chinese herbs, running hot baths and reading novels while sitting in the sun.

Exhausted from 8 weeks on the road, coughing and weak with flu, I was burnout and my mind toxic with resentments from times past when I had herded cats for the Nimbin HEMP Embassy and had been dumped upon with the same kind of emotional shit Michael was copping that day. So I resolutely refused to return telephone calls or help in anyway. Nimbin madness was the last thing my weary soul needed.

On board I mostly lay upon a lounge resting in the roll of the Mulguy as if in a hammock. I had come along to witness the magnificence of this gesture and support my friend and fellow cat herder, Michael.

But even as we began to relish the achievement together, he suffered more misery in magnificence. No one had thought to cater for the event and so mid harbour we were savaging for munchies. Before my eyes Michael, ravenous from his exertions and eating from a bag of nuts, broke a tooth on some hard tack.

The gods can be cruel sometimes.

Graeme Dunstan
September 2000

For an indexed photo record of the event, taken by Max Stone of rebelart go here.

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