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Despite Modest Showing at Polls, Australia’s HEMP Party Won’t Give Up

Cannabis has never killed anyone. Unlike illegal drugs that are processed, cut, or synthesized, it is simply a dried herb. What’s the danger, then, of granting amnesty to Australia’s 2 million cannabis consumers while the country moves toward legalization?

That’s the thinking, at least, of the bearded, bespectacled president of Australia’s HEMP Party, Michael Balderstone. A former JBWere stockbroker who traded High Street for the high life, Balderstone settled in Nimbin, in New South Wales, where his “fury and frustration” with cannabis prohibition eventually led him to lobby for legalization. His HEMP Party now focuses its efforts on education and building community support, although it’s still a long way from office.

You might have seen Balderstone’s name on your ballot if you voted in Australia’s most recent election, in July. The HEMP Party ran Senate candidates in the states of NSW, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, and the Northern Territory, picking up 1.4 percent of the national vote on a joint ticket with the Australian Sex Party. Balderstone said he loved working with the Sex Party, members of which he described as “much more politically smart than us hippies.” The parties’ pairing didn’t yield quite the electoral coup Balderstone hoped for, but it did yield some cheeky jokes from The Guardian.

“Just by existing we give our members and cannabis users some sense of belonging and acceptance, as it's no fun being wrongly judged as criminals.”
Michael Balderstone, HEMP Party president

A modest 1.4 percent of the vote may not sound like a resounding political victory, but it amounts to more votes than received by Tasmanian Sen. Jacqui Lambie, billionaire businessman and former politician Clive Palmer, and Member of Parliament Bob Katter combined. The HEMP Party did best in the Northern Territory, where it garnered almost 5 percent of the vote.

Unfortunately for Balderstone, it wasn’t enough to secure a senate seat. He attributes this in part to the cannabis-reform vote diffusing into other parties. Another single-issue party, the Drug Law Reform Party, would have taken some votes, for example, as well as media personality and Victoria Sen. Derryn Hinch and the right-wing, populist One Nation party, both on record as supporting cannabis legalization for medical use.

Despite electoral defeat, the HEMP Party has rallied, calling for cannabis amnesty while the Australian government catches on to the “amazing medical properties” of the plant. Balderstone sees the Office of Drug Control’s new licensing scheme for medical cannabis as “terrific,” but warns that it will make little difference to the millions of Australians who currently use cannabis. “The plan is patients will need a tick from their doctor to get it from the chemist!” he exclaimed. “Who will train the doctors, and when? Looks to me like they’re getting the cart built and they don’t even have a horse yet.”

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The new rules “exclude virtually everyone with experience from getting a licence or permit,” he continued. “What a waste of 50 years of knowledge Aussie growers have gathered.” The setup, Balderstone said, appears to be more about keeping drug-industry regulators, the medical profession, and the pharmaceutical industry happy.

New Senate voting rules have also frustrated the HEMP Party, which has said the changes have “pulled the rug from under the minor parties.” After enjoying a brief surge in popularity, many of Australia’s other minor parties may find themselves in a similar position.

Now five months after the election, Balderstone says the party is working to address the flood of inquiries its received as Australia moves towards full cannabis legalization.

“We’ll continue working on education, which is what it’s all about, really,” he said. “We protest and lobby various politicians, and I think just by existing we give our members and cannabis users some sense of belonging and acceptance, as it’s no fun being wrongly judged as criminals.”

Aside from that, Balderstone promised, “We’ll continue on our long-term plan to overgrow the government!”