Hashcoffeeshops. A prescription for Nimbin?

Execitive summary:

This paper explores the economic aspects of Nimbin's 'street scene' with particular reference to the sale of cannabis to visitors and its association with the use of injectable drugs in Nimbin. It discusses past interventions and their lack of effectiveness. It examines other ways of influencing Nimbin's cannabis trade.

The New South Wales Drug Summit, held earlier this year, has demonstrated the willingness of the current State Government to look at innovative, community based plans to reduce the impact of illicit drug use. Cautioning for the possession of small amounts of cannabis and the proposed changes in legislation to allow trial of a safe injecting room in Kings Cross are two such examples. This paper argues that the time is ripe for us to look at what innovative changes might be of benefit to our community.

The model proposed in this paper is based on the experience of the Dutch, who have made significant impact on the street trade of illicit drugs through the Hascoffeeshop system which regulates the supply of small amounts of cannabis to individuals over the age of 18 years.
The role of this paper is not to argue for or against the use of cannabis in our society. It is about the regulation of the end supply of cannabis and how this might impact positively on the health and welfare of our community. The real challenge ahead is gaining consensus for such a model from all sections of our community to allow us to successfully lobby the New South Wales government to implement a trial of this intervention in Nimbin.

Ten years ago I wrote a discussion document for the Mayoral Think-Tank on Drugs in Nimbin. In that paper I outlined the link between the cannabis trade and injecting drug use in Nimbin. It was apparent that most injecting drug users, especially those dependent on heroin, were funding their drug use through the sale of cannabis to tourists.

At the time I suggested that the best way to influence the increasing use of heroin in Nimbin was to reduce the community's reliance on the cannabis trade in the main street of Nimbin. I had hoped this could happen if more responsible cannabis users and growers could keep their activities away from the main street thus reducing the availability of large sums of money to injecting drug users in Nimbin. I also suggested that if we did not act in this way, we would see an increase in the level of injecting drug use in Nimbin and the emergence of a secondary market for injectable drugs, notably heroin and also amphetamines.

Sadly, a number of socio-economic forces have prevented the voluntary regulation of the cannabis trade. We remain a relatively poor community with a substantial cannabis based economy. There is increasing tourism and development without the infrastructure of regular employment for many members of our community, especially the young.

This year we have seen our parliamentarians, through the NSW Drug Summit, discuss the issue of illicit drug use in New South Wales with a greater degree of pragmatism and maturity than ever before. I therefore think it is a useful time to review the situation and see if we can come up with new approaches to the problem of drug related behavior in the main street of Nimbin.

Where are we now?
Much negative behaviour on the main street of Nimbin is around the sale and consumption of illicit drugs. This behaviour is often displayed in the media far and wide and has a negative impact on the image of our town. It also attracts people to Nimbin to purchase cannabis, heroin and amphetamines.

Nimbin has a growing tourist trade and ironically many tourists wish to purchase cannabis on their visit to Nimbin. Many cannabis street dealers are addicted to heroin . They share the trade with a fairly aggressive group of young unemployed people. Heroin dealers come to Nimbin on a daily basis to supply the local users, some of whom will act as 'runners' for heroin supply. Because of this regular supply of heroin many more mobile heroin users visit Nimbin on a daily basis and the injecting drug market has expanded. Visiting injecting drug users tend to be more mobile than resident 'users'. If the 'heat' is on in Nimbin they'll buy in Lismore or Byron Bay and vice versa. A third group of heroin users is 'the occasional user'; these are the individuals, besides poly-drug users, that we see at Nimbin Hospital with an overdose. They are usually visiting Nimbin as a tourist and just happen to 'score' while they are here.

Nimbin's cannabis trade has been increasing for a number of years. With high unemployment, low incomes and a high rate of cannabis consumption, coupled with the high price of cannabis and a lively tourist trade, the sale of cannabis contributes substantially to the income of this town. Sadly much of that income goes up peoples arms and out of the town, while contributing negatively to the public perception of Nimbin and the ambiance of our main street.

Numerous attempts have been made to curtail Nimbin's street trade of both cannabis and heroin. In 18 years I have attended countless meetings that called for various strategies to curb the use of injectable drugs and cannabis dealing in Nimbin. Zero tolerance policing was tried a few years ago with Operation 'El Dockin'. The Police ended up calling it off as it started to gain national prominence on Triple J Radio. As local businesses felt the financial pressure of reduced tourist numbers, what support there was for the operation dwindled.

Other specific police activity, such as plain-clothes police has led to a temporary reduction in activity and a shifting of the mobile section of the heroin trade to another location on the North Coast. Ironically, this is the time other communities such as Byron Bay and Lismore complain about their 'street scenes'! The activity always returns to its prior level once specific police activity has ceased. Working in this environment our local police have to concentrate on 'keeping the peace' as opposed to 'enforcing the letter of the law', otherwise their lives and work would be impossible. It's already a thankless enough task as it is. Medically, we can provide good quality drug and alcohol services for our patients but it is so hard for them to 'stay clean' in the current environment. This is not seeking to excuse someone's behavior so much as challenging the environment in which they are expected to perform well.

What I have described is an economic understanding of illicit drug use in Nimbin. I firmly believe that this is the best way to understand the market for illicit drugs, now the second largest economy in the world after the arms trade. I also believe there are lessons to be learnt at a local level by understanding the economics of our main street illicit drug market.

Economic interventions have a significant impact on both legal and illicit drug use. For example, the use of tobacco has been influenced by increasing the price of cigarettes in a slow and incremental way. This encourages smokers to give up and discourages people from taking up the habit. However, if prices are increased too quickly, illicit markets for tobacco, usually smuggled from interstate, evolve. Methadone treatment improves the quality of a person's life by separating them from the economic needs of having to use heroin every day.

This economic intervention reduces the need to rely on criminal activity to fund addiction and allows heroin users to use their money for food, housing and their children. Neither of these interventions relies on simple moral messages but on the economic factors that influence drug use, thus they impact effectively drug use. Similar models have been applied to alcohol use with significant success.

What might help?
Prohibition of cannabis use in Nimbin has failed to regulate its supply. If this is so then we need to look at new strategies. Cannabis is a popular drug with young people and the illicit cannabis market brings young people in Nimbin in contact with injecting drug users on the main street of Nimbin. This is the real gateway effect of cannabis use for young people and injecting drug use, rather than an inherent effect of the drug itself.

If we are unable to regulate the cannabis trade then we need to regulate the end user supply of cannabis. Failure to do so will continue to expose young people to injecting drug use and all the negative consequences associated with this.

The Netherlands has led the world in regulating the end supply of cannabis. This has been achieved by the decriminalization of the supply of small amounts of cannabis through the Hashcoffeeshops that operate throughout the country. I had the chance to observe this intervention on a study tour to the Netherlands in January last year. A number of things left me very impressed and suggested that the Dutch were achieving what we have not yet been able to.

Like pubs, young people less than the age of 18 years are unable to enter Hashcoffeeshops. The use or sale of all other illicit drugs is forbidden. Only small amounts of cannabis are allowed to be sold, the usual limit was 5gm. Congregation and nuisance behavior around Hashcoffeshops is actively discouraged. Failure to adhere strictly to these 'rules' would result in the closure of the Hashcoffeeshop involved.

The Dutch have been very pragmatic but also very clever in the changes they have made to cannabis prohibition. They have not legalized cannabis but have allowed the police to ignore the safe end-user supply of cannabis provided the rules are adhered to. Because the law has not been changed, failure to do so will result in the immediate closure of the offending Hashcoffeeshops.

The consequent financial hardship this would cause an owner acts as a deterrent to breaking the rules. The importation, sale of large amounts of cannabis and the cultivation of a large number of cannabis plants remains illegal and these laws are actively policed. Through regulating the end-user supply of cannabis there has been a reduction in the use of cannabis products by young people and a reduction in the incidence of injecting drug use among young people. When compared with other neighbouring European countries, paradoxically, The Netherlands has lower rates of cannabis consumption and heroin use, demonstrating that end-user regulation can actually reduce cannabis and other drug use by young people.

Is a Hashcoffeeshop trial a viable idea for Nimbin?
Ten years ago I would not have been sure of the answer to this, but today I would say yes. Here is why.

Firstly, other strategies have been shown to be ineffective in Nimbin.
Secondly, there have been proposed changes to the law in relation to the possession of small amounts of cannabis that allow the police to caution rather than charge cannabis users. Thirdly the are proposed changes to the law to allow the changes to policing in relation to the proposed safe injecting room in Kings Cross in Sydney. This demonstrates that, with government support, that the police will be allowed to ignore the use of certain illicit drugs in some areas of the State. All these changes could help facilitate a trial of a Hashcoffeeshop in Nimbin, operating on principles similar to those I have described in The Netherlands. I will discuss this in more detail later.

The NSW Drug Summit caused much consternation for some residents of Nimbin. Certain local groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, believed, erroneously, that a safe injecting room would soon be established in Nimbin. My personal belief is a safe injecting room in Nimbin, while reducing the mortality and morbidity of heroin use in Nimbin, is not a very clever solution to a complex problem. This is because it fails to address the economic principles around injecting drug use in Nimbin. A Hashcoffeeshop in Nimbin takes these principles into account.

I believe Nimbin missed out on a chance to have a trial Hashcoffeeshop at the same time as the safe injecting room is trailed in Sydney. Significant legislative changes are proposed to allow the trial in Sydney between June 2000 and June 2001 and it would have been nice to see these changes applied in a cogent way to our problems in Nimbin. However, all is not lost. The Premier, the Special Minister of State and the Attorney General have stated that if communities have broad support for innovative strategies around illicit drug use then the NSW Government would be willing to listen to these proposals. 

Our challenge is to see if we, as a community, can gain consensus about the value of a Hascoffeeshop trial in Nimbin.

How would a Hashcoffeeshop impact on various groups in Nimbin?

1) Police
At the moment the police in the unenviable position of having to turn a blind eye to cannabis use in Nimbin. This is because their primary role has to be keeping the peace rather than enforcing the law. To do otherwise would alienate them from a large section of the Nimbin community and destroy any attempts at effective community policing.

At the same time, not enforcing the letter of the law leaves them vulnerable to unfair criticism in the community of them being 'soft on drugs'. Because this discretion is not officially sanctioned they are also open to accusations of corruption and favoritism in their policing Nimbin. This is not a safe situation for honest and caring police officers to work in. However, with a Hascoffeeshop, there would be an area in Nimbin where they could ignore cannabis use and sales of small quantities of cannabis because it is sanctioned by the government.

Adverse behavior of tourists purchasing and using cannabis in Nimbin could be dealt with, in the majority of cases, by cautioning and confiscating their cannabis. Cautioning does not involve the significant time needed to charge an individual with cannabis possession and would allow the police to direct their time and energy towards more pressing areas.

2) Tourists
Tourists would be able to visit Nimbin and make their purchase of cannabis in the safe setting at a Hashcoffeeshop. This would allow them the time and space to buy quality cannabis at a reasonable price without the risk of being 'ripped off' by unscrupulous street dealers.

Their behavior in Nimbin would be influenced by the 'carrot', a safe place to purchase cannabis, and the 'stick', confiscation of cannabis and cautioning by the police if they fail to behave appropriately having purchased cannabis in Nimbin.

3) Cannabis growers
A Hashcoffeeshop would allow growers an ethical and safe market place for cannabis. They would still have to take legal risks in the cultivation of cannabis, but if they were able to negotiate these risks they would have an outlet for cannabis that would not influence the Nimbin street scene in a negative way.

Many growers find it difficult to market their cannabis except through street dealers in Nimbin. This places them in the dilemma of having to decide if they put profit before ethics. At the moment growers are unable to control how their product is marketed once it is out of their hands. A Hashcoffeeshop would give growers a chance to decide whether the wish to make a greater profit with greater legal risks or a lesser profit with less legal risk. Many would opt for the latter, reducing the amounts of cannabis available to Nimbin street dealers.

4) Injecting drug users
A reduction in cannabis supply to injecting drug users who use street dealing to fund their habit will result in a reduction of funds for injecting drug use. Most injecting drug users resident in Nimbin appear to have little involvement with traditional ways of running a heroin habit, usually prostitution and property crime. It may well be that they don't have the desire or skills to fund their heroin use in these ways. I suspect that many of them would be more likely to consider treatment for heroin addiction rather than turning to other areas of crime. If this were to occur, we would see a reduction in injecting drug use for those residents in Nimbin. A flow on from this would be a reduction in the ease of availability of heroin and a reduction in the 'out of town' heroin market as visiting injecting drug users move on to other areas as supply becomes more difficult in Nimbin. The separation of the cannabis market from the heroin market would make the latter far more identifiable. Because of this there would be less tacit support for an injecting drug market in Nimbin. Not many locals support an injecting drug scene in Nimbin but find it hard to separate this from the local 'cannabis culture' many do support.

5) Businesses
Businesses are in a 'double-bind' over illicit drug use in Nimbin. They are aware that the easy supplies of cannabis and Nimbin's 'cannabis culture' attract many visitors to the area. They are also aware that cannabis sales fund injecting drug use in Nimbin and that this contributes in a very negative way on Nimbin's main street. If Nimbin lost its 'cannabis culture' there would be a reduction in tourists visiting Nimbin, if it retains its current street scene many visitors are put off visiting Nimbin. How to have 'cannabis culture' without a street scene is the challenge we face. A Hashcoffeeshop trial in Nimbin could help resolve this dilemma.

6) Locals
Street dealing and the negative behavior it brings with it are a constant concern to Nimbin locals from all walks of our diverse society. People blocking the main street in front of the Rainbow Cafe is a constant concern, as is the high level of injecting drug use around the town, overdoses and inappropriate disposal of injecting equipment. A Hashcoffeeshop has an ability to influence this behavior through economic interventions that take the cannabis market away from street dealers and places it in the hands of a more responsible and identifiable agency. Just as the local pub is identifiable as being responsible for the safe delivery of alcohol and accountable if this does not occur, similar responsibilities would fall on the owners and operators of Nimbin's Hashcoffeeshop. Failure to adhere to the rules about the end supply cannabis supply would result in the loss of a lucrative business for the owners and operators of such an establishment.

7) Young people.
I am concerned about cannabis and young people in Nimbin. It worries me that some of our youth can make a comfortable living from selling cannabis to tourists. This doesn't allow them to gain relevant qualifications and skills for other work and so ties them into criminal activity as a way of making a living rather than developing skills that let them engage in other, more worthwhile and sustainable work. Taking the option of street dealing away from our youth and into a Hashcoffeeshop will encourage them to seek real job skills that allow them to find sustainable employment.

I also worry that their involvement in the cannabis trade allows them to the access and the funds that can facilitate them moving into injecting and other drug use. This year was the first year we have had to deal with heroin overdose in a young person less than 16 years of age. There have been a number of anecdotal reports of increasing alcohol and amphetamine use among young people involved in Nimbin's cannabis trade.

I believe many of our young folk on the main street are more creative and resourceful than they know. Not having the option of street dealing will allow them to tap into their positive attributes to their long-term benefit.

An unregulated cannabis market is about profit not ethics. Who buys cannabis is less important than what profit can be made, exposing youth to cannabis at an age when it would be better for them not to be using it. A Hashcoffeeshop would exclude those less than the age of 18 years, reducing their exposure to cannabis at a younger age. Dutch studies have shown less involvement of young people and cannabis than those countries that have failed to regulate the end supply of cannabis.

8) Health services and rehabilitation.
The management of heroin overdose is often a harrowing and thankless task; anything that reduces this would be of benefit to the working conditions and the morale of local health workers. Dealing with people presenting with problems of heroin addiction is often difficult, time consuming and complex work. Anything that reduces the level of injecting drug use in Nimbin, on a sustainable basis, will also be of benefit to the local health services and allow them to redirect resources to other areas of need. Creating an environment where less injecting drug use occurs will also allow those working in treatment and rehabilitation programs to help their clients achieve greater levels of abstinence and better health outcomes.

A Hashcoffeeshop would also be able to disseminate accurate and accessible health information on safer cannabis use to and allow health workers and researchers to learn more about its effect on people's health

I believe the time is right for Nimbin to ask for a trial of a Hashcoffeeshop. Numerous other strategies have only partially or temporarily impacted on the Nimbin street scene. This paper is not about the rights or wrongs of cannabis consumption. It is about accepting that the consumption and sales of cannabis in Nimbin is an ongoing activity that will not be curtailed by prohibition. If this is so, then we have a responsibility in reducing the harm associated with cannabis use on an individual and community basis. I believe that a Hashcoffeeshop would be a move in the right direction.

The challenge we face is gaining consensus on this issue and presenting a unified community request for such a trial to proceed in Nimbin. If we were to do so, my impression is that the Premier, Special Minister of State and the Attorney General of New South Wales would have little option but support such a trial. I would envisage such a trial occurring during the period of the safe injecting room trial in Sydney and undergoing the same rigorous evaluation as to its effectiveness.

Do we want to be living in the past as part of the problem or living in the future as part of the solution? That is our choice and our challenge

Dr. David Helliwell
March 2000