I’m introduced to Bob the Builder. My assumption is that he works in construction; he has the stocky build and competent demeanor of someone who has spent their life on a work site. On the day that I meet him—at MardiGrass, Australia’s largest cannabis festival—he is dresed in a purple shirt covered by a dapper waistcoat, antique glasses fastened tight to his stovepipe hat. His long, curly red beard covers much of his upper chest. His habit of finishing sentences with an “Aye” betrays a northern upbringing in the state of Queensland: “I was taken to my first MardiGrass in 1996, aye.”
At the 25th Hemp Olympix, Bob’s current hoard of medals is sitting at 76. All his medals having come in joint rolling events. The event’s categories are: speed, blindfold, creative and adverse conditions. In the speed category, the winner simply needs to roll a functional three paper joint with filter faster than anyone else on the stage. Bob the builder holds this record at 14 seconds. The blindfold category is much the same as speed, only competitors are blindfolded. The creative category is judged by crowd applause, and entrants are given ten minutes to produce their most creative, functional joint. In the adverse conditions event, stage hands simulate everything that could possibly go wrong when rolling a joint: competitors and their joints are wafted at with newspapers, poked and sprayed with water. But speed is considered the premier event, and Bob has dominated the competition. Winning for nearly a decade straight—until last year.
MardiGrass is slated to run on the first weekend of May, until Australia’s drug laws change. Perhaps unluckily for MardiGrass’s future, cannabis regulations in Australia are in a period of transition. The laws governing cannabis possession, use and cultivation in Australia, though varied from state to state, are moderate enough to be considered harm-minimizing. The sale and cultivation of cannabis in the state of New South Wales is prohibited. New South Wales, as a state, contains both Nimbin and Sydney, though Nimbin is a nine-hour drive north of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The laws are not nearly as punitive as in the US: a first offense for possession or small-scale cultivation will usually result in at worst a fine, though recorded convictions are usually given for a third offense. However, the penalty for activists who choose to make their medical supply public often face jail time for supplying a controlled substance. The underground market is thought to be valued at around six billion dollars, and Australia has one of the highest per capita regular use of cannabis rates in the world.
The Stage is Set
Bob the Builder is less than an hour away from the joint rolling competitions. The busy main street of Nimbin still functions as a thoroughfare for cars during the festival. The crowd streams by on the sidewalk; perhaps the most charming aspect of MardiGrass is that it isn’t limited to a single venue, but rather the entire town functions as the festival grounds. The spectacle of this little town transformed isn’t lost on Bob. “One year,” he recalls, “I didn’t enter the speed rolling category because I wanted to get the feel of the event, because I’d never seen it. When you’re on the stage and the lights are shining you can’t see much.” Bob’s main competitor over the years has been his friend and protégé, Sally. And though the two have dominated the joint rolling competition in recent years, Bob looks around the crowd and suggests that you never really know where your competition is going to come from year to year. “Could be anyone, you never know who’s going to show up.” Bob and the other MardiGrass celebrities, of which there are a handful, make it their job to move around the site all day, posing for Instagram pictures with city kids turned feral for a weekend. It is appropriate MardiGrass have a sense of repeating itself year after year, like a jovial groundhog day. For Sally, Bob’s main competition in joint rolling, though after a decade of competing against Bob the Builder she is weary of the event, the challenge is clear: “If we can change the laws, I’m not going to be in this competition anymore. I’ll retire once the fight is won.”
Bob the builder was born with a heart condition. He’s had three major heart operations and used over 10 different pacemakers and defibrillators to control the beating of his heart. Each of these operations is an ordeal in itself, “They open you up and flatten you out. They split you from neck to sternum and open you up like a chicken. Then they get to work on you and hopefully you wake up the next day.” Regarding his joint rolling domination, Bob is humble and self-deprecating. He seems genuinely surprised at his own success. “It’s funny that I ended up an Olympian,” he states. Given his medical history, perhaps stranger still that he has lived to be one. And so it is with some irony that Australia’s most decorated joint roller doesn’t actually roll anything for himself. “In the early days, I did smoke, but I had to give it up for health reasons. I’m always sitting in a room with people smoking and every now and again I get to feel a little euphoric.” Though Bob can’t use cannabis recreationally, his long history of medical issues has provided the motivation to advocate for medical cannabis for decades. And it would seem the advocacy he has been part of is finally yielding results. In early 2017, the Australian Federal Parliament passed laws to legalize medicinal cannabis use in Australia for patients with painful and chronic illnesses. Those include cancer patients, people affected by HIV, severe epilepsy, motor neuron diseases and multiple sclerosis.
It’s Time to Roll
Finals day in the joint rolling competition is also the last day of the MardiGrass festival. The darkness in the Nimbin town hall takes a moment for the eyes to adjust to. The hall is yet to fill up and many seats are vacant. Bob mills around, smiling and joking with fellow competitors and locals. Throughout the competition Bob is a perfect gentleman, ever gracious of his competitors. He doesn’t say a bad word about anyone, even when I attempt to lead him to do so for the sake of creating conflict for this story. Mardigrass programming has the feel of a well-rehearsed small town play—it’s charming, but the festival does celebrate the cultivation and consumption of cannabis, and the collective ambivalence of a town of stoners does percolate into the festival in shambolic ways. The crowd grows, no one expects the show to start on time, everywhere old friends are shaking hands and waving at one another. Large groups of travelers, many French and German, stand at the back. Al Glover and S Sorrenson have been the voices of the Hemp Olympix for as long as anyone can remember. They are also the men responsible for Bob the Builder’s stage name. I ask Bob if he’s ever worked in construction. “Nah, I’m a chef,” he answers. Well, what do you build? Why the name? Through his whiskers I see a wry smile: “I build joints.” The majority of competitors are foreign travelers, wide eyed with the healthy glow of youth. When sat on the stage with the perennial entrants, who are invariably local, well-practiced, and vocally supported, it would seem like a simple case of youth versus age, veteran fingers a disadvantage in an event where speed is with the most nimble and dexterous.
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Earlier heats have eliminated competitors who never had a fighting chance, and what remains are the cream of the crop. While I’ve been following Bob, we’ve talked a lot about rolling joints but the first time I actually witnessed Bob the Builder construct a joint was on stage. I don’t think I was fully prepared for just how fast a roller he truly is; I’ve approached this from an almost comical angle, but the man, I realize, is truly a spectacular athlete. The less experienced hands are slowed by uncontrollable nervous shaking. Though confident, Bob knows that a lot can happen in the time it takes to roll a joint. Bob has made the final of each of the four events. He wins the blindfold final in a staggering 24 seconds. His fingers clasp the functional joint above his head, and with the blindfold on he can’t see that he has won by a considerable margin. He is awarded his 77th medal. Next are adverse conditions. He weathers the storm and places third. 78th medal. Bob has been unassailable for longer than a decade in artistic, and his run continues. He wins first place for a trumpet-shaped joint that he calls “Trump’s trumpet.” 79th medal. A hush consumes the crowd. MC Al Glover says, “Speed rolling is our main event tonight. And Bob here is our God.” S Sorrenson directs competitors to place their hands on their head. As the fastest qualifiers, Bob is flanked at the stage’s center by his good friend and rival Sally on one side, and newcomer Jay from Lismore on the other. Al Glover counts down. Arms flinch in anticipation. Bob’s tongue flicks out from beneath his beard and across his lips in anticipation of sealing his joint closed. Time begins. First Bob puts the three pieces of paper together, dumps a pile of dried damiana, a legal herb substitute, and rubs the paper lengthways to evenly distribute its contents and seals it shut. He snatches a square of filter paper, rolls it tight and shoves it in the joint, twists the other end and raises his hand in the air. This all happens in less than 30 seconds. Bob looks around to find both Sally and Jay have their hands in the air as well. From the crowd’s perspective, the three hands shot up almost in unison, bang, bang, bang, all three done. Al Glover walks to the victor with a cup shaped cardboard cutout trophy in hand. The interloper, a woman named Jay from nearby Lismore, is handed the trophy. Bob claims silver, his historic 80th medal at the Hemp Olympix.