The first Drug War Freedom Ride


The Founding of the Glen Innes Chapter of the Australian Cannabis Law Reform Movement

The Glen Innes Town Hall was built in 1887 and its proud style sings of democratic ideals and of a time when people believed in progress and the possibility of enlightened good government, a time when a "liberal" was someone who wanted to liberate us all from tyranny - the tyranny of the convict era in particular.

To see it was to love it. Restored as a 1988 Bicentennial Project its huge proscenium arch is plaster grandeur in duck egg blue with gild barque designs, its floor is polished tongue and groove, straight grained native pine.

Here we gathered the tribes for the foundation meeting of the Glen Innes Branch of the Australian Cannabis Law Reform Movement, following in the footprints of ancestors who spoke up and spoke out for justice.

We set our peace lanterns outside in the street and hung our banners on the stage in front of the blue velvet curtain. "End the Drug War", "Freedom/Peacebus.com" and "Good Medicine". Central on the stage was a 1.5 x 1 meter cardboard rendition of the front gate of Grafton Jail that "Saint" John and I had made that day. By contrast to the architecture of the Town Hall, similar vintage Grafton jail groans with the grim weight and majesty of the British Queen.

I got to stand in front of this set in the public orator style of old, but only for long enough to invite the entire audience to come and enjoy it with me. We had rallied twenty, most of them bright eyed Wytalibarians.

They eagerly joined the photo opportunity, clustering around the cardboard jail and blandishing joints and peace signs. Cannabis Dave had fashioned a flip top box with our logo on it, an Elspeth Jones rendition of a cannabis leaf bursting aside jail bars. The box was stuffed with scoobs.

We went back to the Hall floor and put the chairs in a circle. The first group decision made was to respect the signs on the wall and not smoke inside. The peace pipes would be passed later under the Southern Cross.

Everyone got to introduce themselves and say their interest in cannabis law reform. It was clear after that no one needed convincing on the need for drug law reform, so we talked together about the way ahead. I spoke about the need for action in public place and illustrated the case with the success stories from Nimbin and its HEMP Embassy and annual Mardi Grass and Cannabis Law Reform Rally

I told them about the success of the NSW Compassion Club, which was founded in Nimbin September last year and is now supplying mail order cannabis cookies across Australia without any threat of police action. I also told them about the defacto legality of cannabis cafes in Nimbin, stressing that both these little bits of freedom were won by determined public protest combined with open and regular consultation with local police.

Badja spoke forcefully noting that this was the first public meeting about drug law reform in Glen Innes . ever. He urged his friends to be more engaged in public affairs. "Government is all we have to defend our rights and liberties."

There were statements of commitment and there were stories of sorrow. One woman said how she had lost two brothers to heroin. The last had OD-ed and his body found by his son. When the police came they were contemptuous of the corpse and the tragedy, cracking jokes and heavying the boy. "That boy just spun out", the aunt said. "And I freaked when I found my teenage son with an alfoil of bud in his pocket."

"Not because I am afraid of pot," she explained. "But because I know the shit it will get him into if he gets searched by the cops. He has already a couple of run-ins."

Community talk. Talk of pain, talk of action.

When the acoustics of the cavernous space had exhausted our patience, we went outside and took the cardboard jail on a lantern procession to burn it. I was steering it to a park but the locals wanted it to be much more visible and so it was we set up in front of the Tatts Hotel and burnt in the main street.

Small acts of witness, I called for people gathered to remember the pain of those incarcerated by the Drug War. To remind them that imprisonment is a form of torture and it is a cruel and devastating thing to remove a man from his children, family and friends.

Our boys, Rubin and Felix, jumped at the opportunity to light the jail. While they applied the lighters, I prayed for all future generations of boys that their lives be made safe from the incarceration industry.

Around the fire the peace scoobs were passed. The streets of Glen Innes were ours that night. This was freedom. And we had it because we had demanded freedom and taken it. In peace.

The cardboard was ashes within minutes and then we wandered done to Badja's back yard and stood around a fire under near full moon, the air sharp with frost. Eyes were burning bright with freedom. This had been a turning point in many lives. This is what talk of freedom and justice has always done.

In particular the beautiful Grandma Squirrel was on fire for action and I urged her to do a local Compassion Club and network with local doctors, nurses and carers to supply low cost cannabis to the needy. Squirrel told me later that she decided to put her passion into protecting the local forests. That magic night she became Grandma, Keeper of the Trees. Surrounded by vast forests, mountains and gorges, these were the true treasure of Glen Innes for future generations.

Later Badja confirmed that he would seek to set up a consultative committee with the new Sergeant when he arrives (Sgt Page had retired directly after my handshake the previous Monday.) This will bring many changes at this time when honest police are actively seeking community input in regard to the cannabis cautioning system as a means of steering kids away from the criminal justice system.

(Just change the laws, I say. Legalise and let cannabis become a molehill of a social problem rather than the mountain that the drug laws have made it now.)

But probably the most potent seed we left behind was a collective agreement about the language. Never "dope", nor "marijuana", the slang promoted by the Hearst press, always "cannabis".

Rectification of the names, Confucus maintained, was essential for good public order.

The next day outside the Glen Innes Correctional Centre I got to test the limits of names.

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The jail is like a little feudal mill town in a plantation of pines in the Mount Mitchell Sate Forest. It has a lord of the manor who has absolute control over lives of the villagers, soldiers and sentries, a cluster of dormitories and residences for the serfs, a church and a sawmill. The only external walls are pine trees and three strand cattle fences. Maybe isolation is a wall too.

Peacebus.com had gone on ahead to butterfly our rig of banners while I finished business in Glen Innes. When I arrived, Peacebus.com was missing and instead there was a reception committee of ten warders and their vehicles. Two officers descended upon me at once to tell me that they had their orders were to deny me access to the Drug War prisoners (an estimated 88) and demand that we move on.

One was the Assistant Superintendent, Pat McClymont, the other was Officer Larry Bolger. Larry was short and muscled like a boxer complete with a bristly shaven head. Both were hyped up. I had sent them my media release so they knew we were coming. Larry unrolled a screed he carried and read his version of the riot act, a bit from the Summary Offences act that says one must not loiter near a prison without a purpose.

I thanked him for the information and explained we were not loitering. "We have come here with clear purpose, to speak to the prisoners of the Drug War and to be assured of their welfare."

"My orders are that you will not and that you must leave the vicinity of the prison." said the Assistant Superintendent.

"Who gives you your orders?" I asked. "May I see them?" Pat got a bit stuck here. "My boss, my boss", he kept repeating.

I had been fishing when I asked the question because I have heard that it is the Assistant Commissioner of Corrective Services, Mr Ron Woodham, himself who has directed that the Freedom Riders not have prisoner access. I had left telephone messages and had send a fax inviting dialogue.

"I have come to speak to the prisoners of the Drug War and we shall", I said upping the ante - it was clear that I was not communicating at the right level - and huffed up a bit of old man fierceness. "What will you do about it?" I asked. Larry and Pat were seething and reaching for radios as I went off to rally the troops.

There was some anxiety in this. It would not be the first time in my life that I have called for the charge and turned to notice no one behind me.

Peacebus.com was hiding 2 km down the mountain in a forest side road. Its leprechaun crew, Jab and Cannabis Dave, had got jumpy and decided that discretion was the better part of valour when it comes to ferrying the abundant gifts that the good people of Wytaliba had bestowed upon our cause. They were mulling up when I arrived.

We got the Peacebus.com on the road and visible again near the jail entrance and, while I urged them to get the butterfly happening, I engaged Pat and Larry again and we stood together waiting for the Glen Innes Police patrol to arrive. I had spoken with them before leaving Glen Innes and they were not fussed. They had told us they would cruise if they had no other calls. Now they had a call.

I reminded them of the failure drug Prohibition polices and the injustice of the Drug War. I said that we all had a moral responsibility to help end the Drug War and let its prisoners free. Orders is orders, they counted. The Nuremberg defence, I reminded.

"But there is a big difference between us and Nazis," said Larry. "Is there really?" I asked. And let the question hang.

When the Police patrol arrived it had the two officers, Detective Senior Constable Gary Heward, and young Constable Cindy Tucker, we had spoken to before leaving Glen Innes."

Cindy began at once to tell me there were rules and they must be obeyed. Young and pushy she was trying me on. She was reaching for another rule - us not being allowed to create distraction on a public highway - when I cut her off and said in a low quiet voice: "Don't do it, Cindy. It will look terrible in a report." She jumped back stung my condescension as if by a wasp. "Are you threatening me?" she demanded. Oh no! Profuse apologies! And thereafter Cindy stood on the far side of the group of uniforms and took no further part in the negotiations.

For a moment there the circle of uniforms began to close to exclude me, the madman. Not on your life, fellas! I walked around and stood before them and reminded them of our mission for peace and justice, eyeballing each about moral responsibility and the real boss to whom we answer for our actions. We were here to bear witness and speak our truth.

There was a short silence then Detective Constable Heward spoke. "How long do you want?" he asked. It was one of those magic questions from which instant resolution springs forth. "Five minutes for a photo opportunity and a rap on the PA," "Where?" asked Pat. "At your boundary", I said to the prison officers. "The cattle grid," they replied. And there were Okays all around.

While Peacebus.com was undergoing its butterfly transformation, Max Stone and I went up to the grid to negotiate the photo angles and the positioning of Peacebus.com. Superintendent Hank Zwiers had arrived, in his civvies. We had met the previous Monday and talked through the proposed action then.

He greeted me warmly and became our congenial host, "Sure they can take photos," he told his doubting staff.

Our audience was ten prison guards, two police officers, a couple of car loads of visiting families who waved and cheered to us, two car loads of Wytalibarians and what prisoners could hear our call over the hill and 400 meters away. Saint John tells me he could hear distant shouts coming back in response.

When Peacebus came into sight with its flags and banners billowing in the wind, Max Stone, standing by with digital camera, reported that Det Const Gary Heward exclaimed: "It's the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race!"


The action was over in five minutes as promised. The PA went out in mid sentence, blown a fuse is all, (we hope).

At the time I was rapping about the heroin trade and how over the years we have seen seasonal fluctuations in the supply of cannabis - even in Nimbin - but the powder is always available and it gets cheaper and cheaper. "We can only conclude that there is deep corruption at the centre " Dead mike. It was almost as if Larry had put a meter on us and it had expired.

We all laughed and shook hands

All praise to Gary Heward for he had proven himself to be a peace man. The very model of an officer we can expect to lead the NSW Police Service when the Drug War is over. We put a thank you note under the Glen Innes Police Station door as we left. On the back of a photo of our rig outside the Town Hall: "Thank you for respecting our advocacy to end the Drug War. May peace be with you."

Everyone parted in peace and with increased mutual respect. Larry shook hands with all our crew in the manner footballers do after a good match. Pat McClymont was grinning.

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I had cause to retrace my steps the next morning all the way back to the jail from Ben Lomond to search for my missing mobile phone. I decided to call into the jail to confirm the spelling of Pat's surname. He had told me everyone gets it wrong.

I drove in, right up to the Admin Centre. A bus load of prison officers, six of them, quickly appeared. All of them were grim faced except Pat who was still grinning as if he had had an epiphany, happy to see me and give me his name. As I later found, my cell phone had fallen into the engine compartment and was riding with me on a cross member less that 30 cm above the road. I had backtracked down mountains140 km to confirm Pat's grin.

I had sent a copy of my Woodham letter to Hank and he wanted to talk to me about it. "You went too far with that last paragraph," he said. "That is going to get Ron Woodham wild." And we laughed, at my folly and at the image of Woodham, famous for his rages, going off.

The faxed letter had said:

"(I understand that) you are making decisions about our access to the jail and its Drug War prisoners.

We regard these prisoners as pharmo-political prisoners of war and we want to make contact with them to be assured of their welfare and to offer assistance where we can.

Please give us access to them. Please give us information on how many pharmo-political prisoners of war are being held in NSW jails. Please give also us a break down on the nature of their drug war convictions.

We are particularly interested to know how many people are incarcerated in NSW jails for cannabis offences - possession, supply and cultivation.

We also want to know if it is true that you served in Grafton Jail before the Nagle Royal Commission and were one of the warders who regularly bashed prisoners. Please assure us that this is NOT the case and that the Drug War prisoners are not being subjected to such abuse and torture under your command."

The truth is nothing if not provocative and the mission of we Freedom Riders of festive speech is to generate some heat for drug law reform.

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And heat we have got coming in Tamworth. The Acting Mayor, Cr Warren Woodley, is also an active campaigner for "Drug Free Cities" and he gets a lot of local air time in his mission to "drive cannabis underground" and oppose harm minimisation measures. Bill Gleeson of ABC Regional Radio, Tamworth gave me air at his peak listening time, 9.10 am on Thursday morning. I telephoned in from the wilds of Wytaliba.

In the course of my passionate plea for drug law reform, I had challenged Mayor Woodley to a public debate. Earlier in the week at the prompting of Badja, I had phoned him, invited Woodley to debate and followed up by sending him our media. On air I had said that "Drug Free Cities" was "a monstrous delusion" that only contributed fear and ignorance to the vast problems we face in regard to drug misuse in our communities."

This year's report of the Alcohol and Drug Council of Australia estimates that 44% of Australians have used cannabis at least once, and 21 % have recently used it. A bunch of mayors passing a resolution at their Council meetings is not going to change that. Such delusion will only serve to make our young people more disbelieving and cynical about the authority of local government and impede any realistic prevention and rehabilitation measures."

On Friday I heard Cr Woodley's reply on Bill Gleeson's show. All buttons had been pushed.

Amongst the name calling and bad mouthing of our Nimbin origins and our mission, he said he would not meet the Freedom Riders challenge to debate "Drug Free Cities" because we were just using him for media leverage. He then threatened "to move (us) on with axe handles".

I was so overcome with emotion that I had to do a jig for joy at the media leverage he had delivered us.

And so we parked on top of Ben Lomond Mountain by the New England under a bright full moon. We sat about our fire on camp chairs and watched the frost form, icing up our windows.

At the gates of Glen Innes jail, Paris and Max Stone, Rubin and Felix, left Peacebus.com to return to Nimbin to the Cybershack in Nimbin where phone line time is abundant and they will be with us as cyber passengers.

Now we are the Famous Five having a fabulous adventure. And the money is running out. We have been discussing the etiquette of begging. Cash sponsors we need!

If reading this moves you, please send us money to keep the road show rolling.

Rest and write day, this day. Then tomorrow, down to Tamworth and a round of calls. The Area Commander first and then to the office of the Mayor to search out some common ground.

May peace be with us all.

Graeme Dunstan
16 July 2000

 

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