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420 and Victoria’s Free Cannabis Community: A conversation with Matt Riley

"Our message is simple: prohibition hurts good people"

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Not too many people care about weed enough to paint ‘Legalise Cannabis’ in big green letters on their roof, then again, you wouldn’t expect any less from Matt Riley, one of Australia’s most visible cannabis and drug prohibition activists. When news broke of that medicinal cannabis ‘hoo-haa’ on Tuesday, the bloke did not even bat an eyelid to the otherwise well-received news.  So we got together, chopped up a defiant mix, and discussed cannabis culture in Victoria, kids smoking pot and what medicinal cannabis means for the rest of us with no valid reason to smoke cannabis other than ‘because’.

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The news about medicinal cannabis was announced on Tuesday, what is your opinion on the decision by the Andrew’s Government to finally introduce a safe means for various patients to receive cannabis treatments?

MR: Essentially, the news about Victoria legalising medicinal cannabis doesn’t really make any difference to the vast majority of people out there. It does nothing to remove the discrimination, persecution, or oppression of the people in the cannabis community. It is the medicalisation of prohibition rather than the legalisation of medical cannabis. This legislation will not allow for people to grow their own medicine. It would not surprise me if penalties became harsher now for people caught trying to grow their own.

Would you call the Access to Medicinal Cannabis Bill a ground-breaking piece of legislation?

I don’t think it’s ground-breaking at all. It is further complicating a simple issue. This is simply an effort to keep prohibition in place.

Tell me about your relationship with the police. The 420 picnic at Flagstaff has been going strong since 2014 yet there have been no arrests. Why is that?

Because I have explained to the police that yes, people are smoking cannabis, but we are smoking cannabis as a means of protesting cannabis prohibition, so it is an appropriate, peaceful act of civil disobedience. We aren’t chanting anything, we aren’t waving placards or getting in people’s way, we’re trying to stay out of people’s way and not inconvenience anyone at all. We are being friendly and we are picking up after ourselves at the end of the day. We really don’t want any trouble. The police have seen that we genuinely are trying to be as thoughtful as possible while exercising this act of civil disobedience. All we are saying is please change that law because that law harms many good people.

Other 420 events around the country don’t see the same level of co-operation with police as Melbourne. Where do you think they’re going wrong?

I don’t like to criticise others and what they are doing. In Melbourne we aren’t “fighting the good fight” or proving that we’re right. We don’t have doctors to talk on behalf of the plant. We have “good people” coming together to form the “free cannabis community” to overcome the isolation and oppression of prohibition. We don’t want to argue with anyone, we don’t want to get in anyone’s faces. We just want to be accepted as part of the wonderful diversity of Melbourne. And because we are asking to be treated with respect, we go out of our way to show respect.

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You’ve done an excellent job of cleaning that bong, mate. Very shiny.

So shiny! Someone I know posted a photo of themselves on Facebook while they were high recently, wearing a big pair of black glasses with a comment on it saying “sah wasted!” Anyway, I jumped in there and made the point that we should change the terminology a bit. Saying something like ‘Oh we were just shining last night!’ instead of ‘oh we were so wasted’, it just doesn’t carry the same negative connotation. We should re-phrase ‘wasted’ or ‘stoned’ to ‘shining’.

What’s the most amount of weed you’ve smoked in one sitting?

A 35 gram session with a mate of mine. We started at 8pm and finished 6.30am. It took me half an hour to get home to the flat next door.

How does using cannabis affect your ability to operate a vehicle on the road?

I don’t necessarily drive better or worse, but it does help me stay calm when dealing with bad traffic or bad drivers. It alleviates the stress and anxiety and allows me to drive without becoming agitated by idiots on the road. It also takes away the temptation to go when maybe you should wait, which definitely makes driving safer.

You used to do a lot of work with the HEMP party, namely handing out pamphlets to people passing you by in the street.

Yeah, like an army of Jehovah’s Witnesses giving everyone the shits. That’s one of the early things I did. We had up to now nine or 10 different flyers. I wrote half of those pamphlets.

That was the original approach?

Yeah, but it was just giving people the shits and getting us into arguments.

And what is your approach now?

I don’t talk about cannabis at all. I figured that we try to get acceptance in a society that’s prejudice about cannabis, and we’re doing that by talking about cannabis? That’s stupid. Let’s stop talking about cannabis because then we give people an opportunity to see us as people. That’s what we want, we want to be seen as normal people. We want people to look at us and go “Hey these people are just like us. They’re just part of society. Why is there a law in place to punish them for being who they are?”

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Hunter S. Thompson declared during his famously failed bid for the Sheriff’s office of Aspen, Colorado that: “Drug Sales must be controlled. My first act as Sheriff will be to install, on the courthouse lawn, a bastinado platform and a set of stocks in order to punish dishonest dope dealers in a proper public fashion. Each year these dealers cheat millions of people out of millions of dollars…. it will be the general philosophy of the Sheriff’s office that no drug worth taking should be sold for money.”

I think it should be a relatively free market, where people are allowed to grow their own cannabis where people are allowed to grow as much cannabis as they want and share it with their friends, so long as they’re not selling it, and if they want to grow and sell they should have to get a licence. That way people are responsible for the quality that is produced, there should be regulations on how cannabis is grown. Cannabis used to be $30 an ounce. These days, buying a quarter can be a severe financial hit on someone who finds themselves on a minimum wage, or no job at all, and why should they be excluded?

Should people on minimum wage or Centrelink payments even be focusing on smoking weed?

Well, they shouldn’t have to worry about it. They should be allowed to be growing it for themselves if they’re willing to spend upwards of $90 for a quarter ounce of cannabis.

Should cannabis be taxed?

Yeah, the same as beer. And if you think about it, that’s a hell of a lot of money.

Australia have some pretty intense advertisements for gaming and alcohol during footy games and stuff, how do you think cannabis should be advertised?

We should just treat it like any other product. But I like to put it on par with beer. It’s a false comparison comparing getting high with getting drunk. It’s more like hanging out in a McDonald’s playground as opposed to throwing up everywhere somewhere and becoming really aggressive etc.

Do you think it’s okay for children to consume cannabis?

Cannabis offers certain therapeutic benefits that children can benefit from.

Would you rather give your child cannabis rather than say Valium or Xanax?

Fuck yeah. Cannabis is great for anxiety, there are lots of teenagers with anxiety. I think it’s a really beneficial thing for teenagers to use. But, at the moment, teenage cannabis use is surrounded with all of this nonsense about turning kids into psychotic monsters and it’s just a load of crap. People say cannabis affects brain development—that’s true—but everything people consume throughout there lives inevitably affects brain development: the food we eat, the media or entertainment on TV, or the internet we consume, the music we listen to. It all affects the way we think and interact with society.

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How would you deal with a situation where somebody pulled out a crack pipe and started smoking meth in Flagstaff Gardens? 

Uh, well, it’s happened a couple of times. I basically said to them, “Look, I’ve got no dramas with that at all, but, it’s about perception, and some people will have dramas with that kind of thing.” It’s like alcohol, some people want to have a beer while they’re having a joint. Now I understand that, and if you really want to do that try to do it as discreetly as possible. I don’t want to give anyone the impression that it’s okay for everyone to come and get pissed. But just keep it in check: have one or two, not six or 10. There is no judgement but people need to understand what it is we are trying to achieve.

The annual 420 event at Flagstaff gardens is less than a week away, for newcomers to the event or those who haven’t attended before, what are some fundamental things to know before coming to the event?

That this is a day for the Victorian cannabis community to come together to form friendships, make new connections, and strengthen community ties. This mass act of civil disobedience is not designed to cause any disruptions or to upset anybody. It is not about the wonderful benefits of cannabis but it IS about the wonderful people who are hurt by cannabis prohibition. 

There will be NO sales of giveaways of cannabis or cannabis products. Our aim is to show society that we are just people; colourful, creative, compassionate, happy, smiling people and there is nothing to be afraid of. Our message is simple: prohibition hurts good people.

How has drug prohibition hurt you personally?

Well, personally, I have been subjected to all sorts of judgment and discrimination over the last 30 years. Due to prohibition, I have a criminal record, which could prevent me from travelling, and it has made some career options out of the question. Without doubt, it is the psychological impact of having been labelled a criminal that is probably the hardest to define but also the most significant to overcome.

On a more personal level, I have been pushed to take pharmaceuticals far more than I think was appropriate. Family members, particularly my mother would have happily dosed me up on pharmaceuticals to get me away from cannabis. It is incredibly demoralising to not be accepted by your own family. I believe this has been the worst factor for me. My life is going better now that I understand my family are just prejudiced and I am actually okay.

420 Festivities will kick off officially at 2.30pm on the 20th of April in Flagstaff Gardens. Treat the event like a BYO and you should have no dramas. There will be a BBQ, live music, and a huge raffle with some great prizes on offer, not to mention plenty of good times to be had. For more information about the event, to make a donation, or to grab a 420 t-shirt, visit the FCC website.

  • Words: Robbie Henry
  • Photography: Andrew Andros

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