The cannabis economy

AUSTRALIA is one of the world's largest consumers of cannabis.

While it's impossible to gather accurate figures, it's clear in the Northern Rivers Region marijuana is a significant but controversial commodity generating big funds for the cash economy.

The best 'guestimate' available is based on research from the University of Western Australia in 2003 which assesses the amount spent on marijuana each year in Australia is roughly double the amount spent on wine. So, let's do some calculations.

The Winegrowers Association of NSW tells us between five to six billion dollars worth of wine is bought in Australia each year. Using our academics' best guess, that means around $10 billion is spent on cannabis each year in Australia.

This massive amount is spent on an illegal commodity, generates no tax revenue, and reflects the fact this substance is bought and sold on the black market with its frequent price fluctuations.

While research has found Sydney is the most expensive city to buy marijuana, at up to $500 an ounce, it's cheaper in Melbourne and Canberra. In Perth the price is generally half that of Sydney. The cheapest cannabis is found in the rest of Australia, including the Northern Rivers.

The money gained from cultivating and selling cannabis washes into our greater economy through many channels.

There are anecdotal stories of businesses that came into being in the Northern Rivers after 'a couple of good crops'.

It's commonly believed some university and college students deal small amounts to top up their meagre study allowances and there are others enjoying a comfortable rural lifestyle thanks to the lush landscape and their cannabis plants.

As part of this article we were keen to speak to economists, but none of those contacted were willing to talk. It seems cannabis is still considered a taboo issue and one that could damage credibility. One person suggested being named in an article on cannabis might result in 'crazies' getting in touch.

A big part of managing the cannabis economy is made up of police resources time and money spent on law enforcement. The figures show the number of people charged with cannabis offences has risen steeply in the past two years.

Over the five-year period, the highest number of drug possession charges were laid in the Byron Bay statistical subdivision area (1436). Next was Lismore with 1154 charges, followed by Ballina, Richmond Valley and Kyogle.

While he's well aware of the breadth of NSW police resources used in his village, the president of the Hemp Embassy at Nimbin, Michael Balderstone, said he doesn't believe the area's economy is bolstered by dope alone.

"It's more driven by the reputation of Nimbin and a lot of that is based on cannabis," he said.

"Lots of tourists come here to experience the town's particular lifestyle and they're aware of its history [as the place where the Aquarius Festival took place in 1973].

So they come to the Northern Rivers for its colour, music and part of the attraction of Nimbin is that it was founded on the cannabis business."

But Mr Balderstone said if cannabis was legalised and taken out of the black market it would do a lot more for the community.

"If we had regulations in place to ensure quality control it would then ensure viable businesses could be set up and would provide hundreds of jobs for young, unemployed people," he said.

Bob McKay owns the Nimbin Tours and Shuttle Bus Company. He has lived in Nimbin since the early 1980s when he says there was no tourism at all.

He wants visitors to understand there's a lot more to Nimbin than the cannabis culture, but when he started eco-tourism tours promoting the positive sides of the area such as its natural beauty, permaculture, the Rainbow Power Company and the high use of sustainable power he met a brick wall.

"Unfortunately, the young backpackers' market coming to Byron Bay all wanted the Nimbin main street tour and weren't really interested in other aspects of the village.

Any businesses doing tours out of Byron and not coming to Nimbin x have all failed," he said.

Mr McKay says Nimbin's reputation has meant it's almost become a theme park.

"A lot of people walk up and down the 200-metre strip of Cullen Street and think that's Nimbin. All the tourism operators bring groups in around lunchtime and the daytrippers come in and there's a massive wave of tourists in the middle of the day.

"The atmosphere changes all the dealers come out onto the street and all you hear every few metres is: "Do you wanna score?" All the drinkers are a bit wobbly by that stage and the whole place can be really going off."

He said some days the village can have a lovely vibe, but other days it's a dark, horrible atmosphere.

Mr McKay sayidnot all backpackers are coming to Nimbin to buy marijuana.

"Nimbin's like a magnet for them. They've heard about its colourful history and want to see what all the fuss is about. It's hard to say who's going out just to score how can you tell?"

He'd like to see MardiGrass in Nimbin finish and be taken over by a Nimbin Festival focusing on the positive sides of the area. He suggests the MardiGrass could go to Lismore where a street parade of 5000 would make a major tourist attraction.

Jim Merritt is the owner of Jim's Alternative Tours bus trips from Byron Bay to Nimbin and its environs. Ninety per cent of his clientele are young international backpackers and they all want to check out the village where the area's alternative movement began.

But he doubts that many are going there with the intent of scoring dope. "There are quicker, cheaper options than going on a day trip with us. I think people just want to experience the town. A lot of them enjoy the experience of being offered dope and refusing it. And these days when they refuse they get told to 'Have a nice day', something that wouldn't have happened 15 years ago when Nimbin was a lot darker place," he said.

Mr Merritt likens it to other tourist traps. "If I was in Holland I'd want to visit one of the cannabis cafes just to find out what it's all about and Nimbin's like that," he explains.

Rose Wright of the Australian Regional Tourism Research Centre at Southern Cross University said hemp is part of the mystique of the north coast but it's just one part of a rich mix of attractions. "Tourism didn't take off on the north coast until after the Aquarius Festival. It transformed a very conservative dairy farming area into a haven for alternative energies and creativity of all kinds," she said.

"But essentially people come to the north coast for its lifestyle, culture, beaches, hinterland, food, produce and proximity to south-east Queensland. There's been huge tourism growth here in the last few years."

Other business opportunities have opened up with the cannabis economy. While not suggesting that hydroponics businesses are anything but legitimate, it's probable the big spike in the growth of such businesses over the past 20 years is partly due to the cannabis market.

And one man interviewed for this article - who did not want to be named - told us that the latest craze among well-to-do professionals is growing cannabis plants in their saunas.

But those buying marijuana on the black market are not all doing so to get high. Cannabis is not just a recreational drug. The medical use of cannabis has long been championed by Nimbin's Hemp Embassy and numerous experts. People with HIV are common users of marijuana as it improves appetite and helps them sleep. Much research has been done on the benefits of cannabis for those with multiple sclerosis.

It's been found to lessen the pain of muscle cramps, tremors and spasticity. There are scores of disease symptoms, including those of cancer, which improve with the use of cannabis.

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