Cannabis Cafes: Keeping the Pot Bubbling

Last year, the findings and recommendations of the 1999 NSW Drug Summit provided a window of opportunity for communities like ours to develop unique strategies that address specific drug related issues faced by individual communities. As is the case with the safe injecting facilities being established in Kings Cross, the presumption was that if the proposed community strategy had sufficient merit and community support, the government was prepared to bend the currently existing drug laws to some extent to accommodate the proposal.

Local GP David Helliwell, who has for many years advocated harm minimisation activities within the Nimbin community, saw the possibilities that this legislation offered for us to tackle the most fundamental drug-related problem (together with all its subsequent flow-on social turmoil) we live with- the on-street trade in cannabis! His proposal was that we aim to regulate and hopefully eliminate this trade by creating a trial of a legally sanctioned off-street market network via the creation of Cannabis Cafes (see Nimbin Good Times March 2000 or on internet http://www.nimbinaustralia.com/cannabiscafes/).

Since then a local Nimbin Community Drug Action Team was formed (an initiative of the Premier's Department that also resulted from the Drug Summit recommendations) and one of the tasks that it adopted to work on was the Cafe proposal. The other two areas chosen for further examination were a medically supported home detox program and a job creation/education strategy via the local Schools. The Cannabis Cafe proposal, thus, was the only one that sought to directly address the rampant street dealing scene that has come to dominate village life and arguably remains the dominant perception of us by visitors to the town.

The possibility that the Carr government may consider Cannabis Cafes as a possible starter is an extreme long-shot. It would mean a radical variation in the existing legislation, possibly far in excess of what John Della Bosca, the architect of the Drug Summit had in mind, but there are two factors that are in our favour.

First, all polls show an overwhelming majority of the voting population feel that a change in regard to drug approaches by government is both needed and desirable.

The second is that someone has got to make the first step somewhere, and if ever there was a town with the credentials and the imperative for reform, Nimbin is IT!

So what's it all about?

To begin with what we need is a model to focus discussion on and around. Simply allowing a bunch of cafes the unrestrained right to deal what, when and how they like isn't what I consider any fundamental variation from what we currently have, isn't likely to substantially effect the negative aspects of the street scene and won't provide the local community with much
functional benefit.

It's the same thing with the current drug laws: most people accept these laws just aren't working and that there's this crying need for change. The big question is: what do we make the change to?  Without models to base change upon we're going nowhere. This is where the Cannabis Cafes idea comes in (and this is my idea of how that could work).

It starts with the presumptions that in Nimbin-

1. that the current trade is entrenched and as long as people keep coming here to score pot, the trade will continue

2. the police, no matter what they do within the current situation, will not be able to make any real impact on reducing the trade

3. the trade in cannabis is a multi-million dollar trade, totally untaxed and with no direct benefit to the local community

4. the trade produces lots of greed and inconsiderate and downright unpleasant behaviour that seriously impacts on the main street ambience and us

5. provides the finance for a substantial range of further drug usage which
in themselves create more problems for us to have to deal with

6. that there is virtually no effective drug education/harm reduction
happening on the street and that cannabis is generally portrayed as a benign substance (despite much evidence to the contrary) in large part to justify the trade.

At the moment as a community we have no common income to finance any real drug education, provide services or offset the impact of this trade in any way other than through competition for scarce and thus limited government funding.

Although it may be abhorrent for many to contemplate funding such programs and services from a tax imposed on cannabis sales, it really comes down to a case of "if you can't beat them, join them". We already fund, via State and Federal taxation, many government services through taxation on such dubious pursuits as alcohol, tobacco and gambling. But we need to be smarter and better and more creative in our use of such revenue, and in this, together with working on and building up our strength as a united community, lies our only real hope to clean up the trade on the street.

So who's going to benefit from these sales?    It must be that the whole community benefits and all individuals should have the opportunity to be involved in some way or else nothing changes and we may as well save ourselves the trouble.

The community benefit lies with us having a strategy that will allow us to help solve the dilemma of the street as well as providing us with a source of revenue through the imposition of a tax on sales. For the trial period, this revenue should be directed back to the Nimbin community for the purpose of helping provide point-of-sale and visitor education regarding ALL drug use, funding appropriate drug-use related health services, community infrastructure support and support for community services.

I realise that the notion of taxation imposed on pot sales will be met with an aghast resistance but it would do well to remind ourselves that taxation provides the infrastructure we all use and rely on (roads, health services, welfare, schools etc) and pot growers and traders can't think of
themselves as being exempt from contributing. In fact we have a ethical responsibility to tax the trade.

This could, in my schemata, best be levied by forming a grower's co-op of which all Nimbin residents within a defined area are eligible to join. If we are to have a legitimate outlet for sales then we must have a legitimate supply. Registered growers could have the right to grow say 10 plants each with legal protection and thus supply the cafes via the co-op. Cafes should only sell co-op cannabis thus ensuring that all the "cafe" cannabis traded is locally grown. Growers must agree not to supply any of their produce for sale on the street at the threat of losing their co-op membership and legal grower status.

The levy on sales could be imposed at the wholesale (co-op) stage prior to sale to the cafes thus eliminating or taking away the temptation for any fiddling with or cheating (non-taxed sales) by the retailers.

Who could operate an outlet and under what conditions?

Cafes, and other outlets, would need to be approved and certified by a local body consisting of local people either nominated or elected to that position. It wouldn't necessarily be just cafes able to sell pot: in Holland, where the Hashcaffe idea has been in operation for over 20 years sales are limited to cafes that are mostly based in densely populated urban areas and only small quantities are sold.

On the other hand we're a rural community and people come here from all over seeking more than small quantities in order to return home with, and they'll come for a variety of reasons including health considerations. Thus it can be seen as a health or grocery item even, with other outlets licenced to trade.

To qualify as an outlet, purveyors would need to refrain from overt advertising, undertake that hard drugs and alcohol are not consumed or traded on the premises, to keep an orderly house (as regards offensive behaviour therein), provide point-of-sale education about the consequences of cannabis use, and to undertake to be responsible for the well-being of their customers. By not keeping to such self-regulating agreements the right to trade would be revoked.

What about the quantities sold?

Cafes would primarily sell smaller quantities, most likely by the gram, for use on the premises. Larger quantities could be sold in tax stamped heat or vacuum sealed bags that, with agreement from both NSW and Queensland police, could be legally transported to the buyer's home without penalty provided the heat/vacuum seal is unbroken. This both encourages and rewards safe driving practices. In Victoria figures indicate that in over 60% of vehicle accidents where drugs are involved, cannabis use has been detected (albeit more often than not in association with alcohol).

But this doesn't necessarily stop people selling on the street, does it?

No, but remember that all local people would be able to grow and sell through the co-op on condition they don't supply pot to street dealers to sell. That would mean that theoretically all the pot being sold (illegitimately) on the street would be from out of the area. Rather than be ripped off by these out-of-town carpetbaggers, who contribute absolutely nothing to the local community or economy, we then have a clear reason to support the local police in their efforts to stop the street dealing.

Perhaps such a trial could even go so far as to give them special powers. Again this would require a fundamental shift in street politics. Currently the police are hamstrung because anything they try and do gets met with resistance.

The arguments about the right to possess cannabis for personal use have got messed up in the local context with the right to exploit a bad law for personal gain.

The "street status quo" currently doesn't discriminate between the two despite the obvious ethical discrepancy, and individuals are powerless to act against the pressure of organised street dealers and fuzzy-thinking civil libertarians.

By providing an off-street outlet for local produce we can create a clear and non-compromised scenario for police action. In it we can thus see the basis for a real and symbiotic relationship between the local police and the community.

Ultimately police officers are an essential part of our society and at some time we all will probably call upon and expect, often demand, their assistance. To avoid the current, often hypocritical, relationship between the public and police we need to develop new ways and avenues to co-exist in a mutually supportive way.

The Royal Commission into Police Corruption has radically changed how police operate. We need to recognise that the charge of corruption is more likely to be able to be applied to our own community members as the lure of personal greed, acquisitiveness and the desire to maintain the highly cashed-up manner of life to which the grower/dealer becomes accustomed to over-rides a sense of responsibility to social justice, equity and our greater local community.

These things are only a small part of what I consider a model for cannabis regulation could include and at the moment are simply my own thoughts on the subject. They're not the last words on the subject by any means though in order to get politicians and the public service to even seriously consider these proposals we need to develop a model that addresses every objection that may arise. To this end I've devised a checklist of conditions and questions I think we must find the answers to and these are posted on the web-site mentioned above. I urge you all to take a look at them and join the debate.

We must also be able to show and quantify that a majority of local residents support such a change of regulation. This may require us holding some form of referendum or vote on the subject as without us being able to show proof of community support, we'll get nowhere. If you'd like to see a shift in the way our main street functions then take every opportunity to be involved, to question and to refine what you'd like to see occur, and, most importantly, provide input and feedback.

Anything less than a radical and fundamental change to the way that cannabis is distributed locally will mean that nothing much will change and we'll be stuck with our home-grown nightmare. We've already got a torrent of visitors attracted to the area either seeking to score or intent on getting a slice of the current action and it's hard to envisage this state of affairs worsening, despite the Police talk of a "honeypot" situation developing with Cafes going legal.

The big difference would be that visitors could have a relaxing, open, hassle-free time without the fear of being ripped-off instead of the current hostile and often aggressive situation they encounter where they risk being taken advantage of with no recourse to justice if this does occur.

In the tourist world we could develop a reputation akin to wine-growing or specialist cheese producing areas renowned for their local produce. It would give local growers a legitimate income and provide much needed cash for local community development.

We could generate an era of peace and harmony on our streets and refocus the attention of visitors to all the other wonderful facets of life in Nimbin. By providing a real source of drug education that isn't tainted by the need to "sell more drugs" or hysterical exaggeration we can provide an example for other communities to follow.

We could develop a vital local economic base that benefits all residents and assures our kids of a viable equal chance for the future. And last but not least we could re-establish the reputation of our community as one that has something creative and real to say and do in relation to drugs instead of merely be seen as just another drug dominated community.

The issue of drugs, and more particularly cannabis, is the acid test of our pertinence as a visionary society.

John Della Bosca was in Nimbin on Monday March 12th to meet with the Nimbin Community Drug Action Team and he assured us that he would consider whatever proposals in this regard we put before him. We should be grabbing the ball and making the most of this opportunity to run with it because the chance may never come again.


Bob Hopkins
March 2001