prescription for Nimbin?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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