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Meet Australia’s marijuana terrorist

Jun 15, 2020 • 15m 46s

George Dickson is a cannabis law reformer. After an altercation with police, he was also classed as a high risk terrorist offender.

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Meet Australia’s marijuana terrorist

244 • Jun 15, 2020

Meet Australia’s marijuana terrorist

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

I broke the windows on two police cars. I absolutely did. No one's saying I didn't. I expected to go to court. I expected to get either a large fine or a short prison sentence. That's not an issue. If that had been the case, we wouldn't be having a conversation now. It wouldn't be a story in it. it's been a bit crazy from there.

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Last year, George Dickson was listed as a “high risk terrorist offender”, that’s despite never being charged with a terrorism offence.

He was put under strict supervision orders, and monitored by the state. Hugh Riminton wrote about his case for The Monthly.

Hugh, so you can start off by telling me a little bit about George Dickson.

HUGH:

George Dickson is an intriguing character, I think.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

Hi I’m George Dickson, just a basic Australian bloke, moved around a bit, seen a lot of the country, down in South Australia now.

HUGH:

He left school at 15. Quite a middle class upbringing, and he found himself before very long homeless and on the streets.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

Went to a private Christian school, not an expensive one, but there you go..

HUGH:

He was in and out of trouble with the law, but not in any major way. It was mainly, he says, and the record seems to support this, is mainly just for stealing food and stuff like that. And then he sort of straightened himself out and and he attributes that to cannabis.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

My whole life, it has been a very positive influence. I. I don't drink alcohol. A lot of the early things I had with alcohol weren't really beneficial. I much prefer cannabis. It's a better lifestyle choice.

HUGH:

He's a curious amalgam of sort of hippie.

But oddly enough, there's a weird sort of control about that. He's got dreadlocks that go halfway down his back but they’re very neat dreadlocks. In my encounters with him, fastidiously polite.

But you also get a sense of a fellow who really is somewhat on the fringes and in his own sense, a little defiantly so, he says he has a great life by and large, except for the events that we’ll describe.

RUBY:

So can you take me back and tell me how all of this began for George and how he first came to the attention of law enforcement?

HUGH:

In 2016, he's living in Adelaide and he's arrested for cannabis possession. And this becomes quite a moment. He tries to defend himself. And his defense is essentially that he's entitled to smoke dope.

And the magistrate didn't go too hard on him, but convicted him and fined one hundred and fifty dollars. Something about that really got under Dickson's skin. And from that point on, he became fixated on this war against drugs.

RUBY:

Right. And what did that fixation look like?

HUGH:

So he started a campaign on his own account, he wrote emails to every politician in the country whose email he could find.

Some of them are quite benign, but some of them... what he's basically saying is that there is a war against drug users, and in this war, people have a right to defend themselves and they have a right to use, if necessary, lethal force, as you would within a war.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

We’re talking about years and years of casual activism. At one time or another I expect I've just spoken to every politician in Australia.

HUGH:

And he wrote them too, among other people, the then New South Wales police minister, he wrote them to the South Australia police force...

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

I went through their website… I believe if they were contactable through their public portal, I contacted them.

HUGH:

So although he was sending these things off in volume, no one took him seriously. He was just another just, you know, just he was just another crank sending out letters. But it was to ultimately be to his cost.

RUBY:

What do you mean by that?

HUGH:

So being a good dope smoker, he you know, the dope smoking event of the year happens in Nimbin in northern New South Wales.

[Nimbin drumming circle tape]

HUGH:

Every year it has a thing called the Mardi Grass, which is a festival of cannabis and built into that as a campaign for cannabis law reform.

Archival tape -- 2016 Mardi Grass tape:

Free the weed! Free the weed!

HUGH:

And there he was, now at one stage, a police patrol going through there encountered George Dickson, who said something to the effects of “fuck the police” and threw a piece of paper in their direction, which it seems it turns out was one of his flyers.

You know, talking about the war on drugs or something or other. And they gave him an offensive behavior citation and also one for littering.

Now, a couple of days later they go into the Nimbin camping ground. They go looking around and they find a small mull-up bowl with dope nearby.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

They’ve just grabbed some cannabis nearby and they're like, this is your cannabis.

HUGH:

Now George Dickson says it wasn’t his only because he’d smoked all his dope.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

It’s a cannabis festival. There's cannabis everywhere, if they had walked around and looked they would have found 3 more bowls of cannabis.

HUGH:

They then decide to arrest him.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

I’m like, what the hell? And that's it, I’m being taken to the station now.

HUGH:

And it's not until late at night, they give him a possession of cannabis charge and then bail him to be released. He says, I don't want to be bailed because it's the middle of the night. Keep me in the cell overnight.

And they say, no, no, no, no, get out of here. Get out of here and he's a bit pissed off by that.

He is now 30 kilometers away from his tent site. It's May. It's quite cold. He is barefoot. And he says, will you give me a lift back? No, no, no. And he tried several times to get them to give him a lift back to the extent of even calling triple zero, but the police in Lismore just simply don't do it.

So sitting out on the street cold and outside the police station are two parked police vehicles. And in his frustration, he picks up a rock and he smashes the front and back windows of two police vehicles. Now, this comes to police attention.

They go out and they drag him back in again and it's not really disputed that as he's being dragged in there, he kicks out and kicks a police officer in the stomach in the course of being arrested.

Well, now he's up on different charges - for assaulting police and for criminal damage to the police vehicles.

RUBY:

Ok. So those are sort of mid-range charges, assault and criminal damage. George would have been potentially facing some jail time for that, so what happened next?

HUGH:

While he was on remand, he was still in custody. And he attended what was called a communications session with about 20 other prisoners at a correction centre on the outskirts of Sydney.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

And they’re like, everyone stand up, introduce yourself, say a bit about yourself, so I’ve stood up, I’ve said what I’m in prison for, I’ve done this, I’ve done that, I broke the windows on a police car cause I’m a political activist.

HUGH:

The recollection of the programs officer was that he said, “My name is George Dickson, I'm a cannabis law reform activist. I want to set fire to every police station in the state and in the country, and I want to blow up parliament”. Now, Dickson disputes that he said that.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

I'm fairly sure that's not what I've said. That's absurd.

HUGH:

Now, where the truth might lie, whether Dixon is telling the truth… This thing went on his record.

RUBY:

We’ll be back after this.

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RUBY:

Hugh, we’re talking about George Dickson - a cannabis activist who was in custody for assaulting police and criminal damage. At a session with other prisoners he is alleged to have said he would burn down every police station in the country and blow up parliament. He denies that. What happened to him next?

HUGH:

So he imagined he was going to do his time and then walk out. And then just before he walked out, the police came to him and they triggered this new act they had, the terrorism high risk offenders act.

And that's when the full force of this law came to bear on George Dickson. He found himself bound up in this as if he was a terrorist. He was classed as a high risk terrorist offender under the act.

RUBY:

Ok. So what did that mean for George? How did his life change as a result of being classed a high risk terrorist?

HUGH:

Well, he says it was traumatic. It was worse than being in jail. He had to wear an anklet which signaled his locations at any time.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

I’m essentially held prisoner by a little electric beacon that they’ve plugged into the wall, I can’t go more than 50 metres away from it. And that's it, I just stayed near that beacon.

HUGH:

He had never lived in Sydney, and yet he was required to live in western Sydney in homeless shelters.

He would have to, on a Tuesday afternoon, file what he intended to do over the next seven days. His supervisors would then decide what he couldn't couldn't do. He would then be given a map and a set of time. And if he bends away from that route, then that is potentially a breach in the subject to a terrorist alert that he's essentially gone on the lam.

RUBY:

How long did this go on for?

HUGH:

The state wanted him to be put under extended supervision orders. In other words, into perpetuity.

RUBY:

So living the way that he had been, forever?

HUGH:

Pretty much. They strongly argued for him to remain under the tightest possible restrictions..

If you’d have boiled down the New South Wales state argument, it was this: that the threat of a terrorist act is in itself a terrorist act.

That what he had actually done was to threaten terrorism. He is, therefore, it follows a terrorist, therefore, he deserves to be under these orders.

RUBY:

Right. And what did George Dickson’s defence argue to counter that?

HUGH:

His own lawyer said, look, the state talks about things like a war on drugs. So if the state is entitled to use hyperbolic language, is the same entitlement not to be extended to citizens within a state?

There was a man called Anthony Samuels, a very experienced forensic psychiatrist, who had looked at Dickson. Samuels said and it was quite telling. He said, “I would get at least every three or four weeks a client who expresses some desire to do violence against some arm of the state”. You know, so the point that he was making was that making threats as a citizen against some sort of arm of the state is common. People do it all the time.

Through all of this, George Dickson sat very quietly. They broke for lunch at one stage and they went outside into the sunshine and here was the guy that we were told was such a terrorist inside the court, out by himself next to a whole bunch of QC’s and their clients and all the rest of it at this outdoor cafe.

And it struck me looking at that, that there was a complete disconnect between the way the state was presenting this guy in court and how they actually viewed him in reality. You know, it definitely did strike me at that point that the state was essentially taking the piss.

RUBY:

What was the outcome of the case? What did the judge decide?

HUGH:

Well, the judge heard all of this and then reserved his decision and came back a week or so later and said: All orders are gone.

And at that point, three sort of very blandly dressed men in suits who were sitting quiet in the back, looked at each other, went across to the good Mr Dickson, took them into a side room and took off the anklet.

And he was free to go.

RUBY:

And Hugh, how is George now that he is free?

HUGH:

One minute he is counted among the worst Islamic State or white supremacist murderer and terrorist. And the next minute he's on a plane by himself back to South Australia, living a quiet life.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

It was really nice just to be able to walk somewhere without asking permission first.

HUGH:

And as he told me as I rang up to check in on him, he said the cops haven’t even come around to check in on him.

Archival tape -- George Dickson:

It's just nice to be back and be able to see my family.

HUGH:

These incredible powers have morphed in their use down to the point where they have captured and would have utterly destroyed the life of a man who is essentially a harmless dope-smoking hippie, who wants some cannabis law reform and has been intemperate in his language, shows that we are all in danger, unless there is restraint and caution in the application of these laws.

If you have a law and then hand it to security agencies, the willingness almost immediately to see that law, for all its good intentions, being misapplied onto mere noisome troublemakers, activists should alarm the hell out of all of us.

RUBY:

Hugh, thank you so much for talking to me about this today.

HUGH:

Absolute pleasure, great to talk to you.

RUBY:

This episode was produced by Elle Marsh, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

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**

RUBY:

Also in the news -

The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has confirmed there’ll be a further easing of coronavirus restrictions in the state on June 22nd.

Cinemas and theatres will be able to reopen, and hospitality venues will be able to serve up to 50 people.

**

And an Australian man who was arrested on drugs charges in China in 2013 has been sentenced to death.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says its providing the man - former actor Karm Gillespie - with consular support.

The Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said Gilespie’s sentencing “shouldn’t necessarily” be seen as an escalation of tensions between the nations, but should serve as a warning for Australians overseas.

**

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

George Dickson is a cannabis law reformer. After an altercation with police, he was also classed as a high risk terrorist offender. Hugh Riminton on legal powers and overreach - and one man’s experience of both.

Guest: Walkley Award-winning journalist Hugh Riminton.

Background reading:

The Aquarian ‘terrorist’ in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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244: Meet Australia’s marijuana terrorist