Jeremy Buckingham has the munchies. The Legalise Cannabis Party’s first and only NSW MP has skipped breakfast but admits to partaking in a few sneaky tokes (he has a medicinal prescription for pain and insomnia) before we meet at the Cairo Takeaway on Enmore Road, a beloved Egyptian joint that still bustles on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon.
We are discussing the unappetising lunchtime subject of dead fish. On a scorching day in January 2019, Buckingham, then a Greens MP in the NSW Upper House, travelled to Menindee in the far west, to draw attention to mass fish deaths in the Darling River. Holding a rotting Murray Cod carcass, Buckingham began excoriating the then-Coalition state government. But midway through his spiel, he felt the remnants of the morning’s latte in the back of his throat, and began retching.
Eventually, he dropped the fish, threw up off camera, and jumped into the river. The moment, captured in an excruciating video, went viral.
“It was an apocalypse,” he tells me. “It smelt like the bottom of a bin . . . the river was green. The thing that was the most revolting was just how despicably greasy it was. It was boiling with maggots.”
Such is Buckingham’s unapologetically rogue approach to politics. He gets obsessive. He can be, in his own words, “a bit of a megaphone”. He loves a viral moment (he recently waved a joint around in the Legislative Council). Occasionally, things can get messy.
The memory of rotting Murray Cod doesn’t dent our appetites. Buckingham has chosen the Cairo Takeaway, an inner west cult favourite with queues round the block on weekends because his “hippyish” childhood gave him a love of all things lentil-related. He opts for the Maalouba, a mountain of rice layered with lamb, plus some sweet potato crispies.
I pick the falafel plate, loaded with tahini and zingy pickles and a side of fries because it’s rude not to overorder. Both meals are washed down with sugarcane juice that cuts through the January mug.
Buckingham also credits his upbringing with setting him on his political journey. His parents, swept up in the countercultural fervour of the 1970s, fled the mainland to seek a more authentically alternative lifestyle in Northern Tasmania. They were decidedly working class and staunchly political – dad worked in the mines and was heavily involved in unions. His mum was active in feminist and pro-LGBT circles at a time when Tasmania was particularly hostile to such ideas. He grew up not quite in communes, but close enough.
“You couldn’t help but become politicised from that because we had this sort of rejection of the capitalist model that was going on,” he says. “But because of our working-class background, I was always trying to come up with a solution to the problem that some people saw as intractable, the conflict between environment and economy.”
That conflict has haunted progressive politics in Australia, not least the Greens, whom Buckingham represented in the NSW Legislative Council for eight years after getting elected in 2011.
That stint ended in controversy. In 2018, Buckingham was accused of sexual harassment by a party staffer. He always denied the allegations, and an independent investigation commissioned by the Greens found they could not be substantiated.
But the affair caused a rift within the party. Several Greens figures, including Newtown MP Jenny Leong, called for him to step down from the party’s upper house ticket. He subsequently quit the Greens to run, unsuccessfully, as an independent at the 2019 election.
Buckingham still denies the allegations, and tells me that he’s “moved on”.
“I got caught up in those harassment allegations, but they were investigated by the party,” he says. “There was no wrongdoing found. And for me, the #MeToo movement is incredibly, incredibly important.
“I know who I am. I know I’m not a creep. And I know I can be trusted in public life.”
Either way, after the 2019 election, Buckingham didn’t think very much about a political future. He moved to the mid-north coast and, for a while, was working as a bus driver for a Steiner school.
“I just grew dope and went surfing. And I thought politically, I was a carcass.”
And then, his life was hit by tragedy. In 2022, Buckingham’s 23-year-old son Eden died from suicide, a day after telling his father that he’d suffered sexual abuse as a child.
“After trauma like that, you can just retreat into grief and lay down, it’s very tempting to just lay down and die yourself,” he says, through tears. “And then a part of you just goes, Oh, my God, life is so fragile, so short, that you have to seize the day.”
Buckingham credits his wife Crystal with helping him through that awful period. But finding a new political project also gave him a life raft to escape sinking into grief.
During those wilderness years on the mid-north coast, Buckingham had stumbled on the Legalise Cannabis Party’s website while “googling how to grow really massive dope plants”. He figured they could use a bit of help on the electoral strategy front, and reached out to the party’s luxuriously bearded president Michael Balderstone.
Then, a month out from last year’s state election, he was tapped as the party’s lead candidate in NSW. Riding the weed wave that had already seen Legalise Cannabis MPs elected in Victoria and Western Australia, Buckingham won a seat.
It feels a bit of a cliche that we’re discussing this in Enmore, where the telegraph poles are littered with Marxist graffiti and the whiff of ganja floats through the backstreets, even as property prices go boom.
But Buckingham wants to bust cliches. For starters, it isn’t the terrace dwelling gentrifiers of the inner west who are buying his gear.
“Legalising cannabis is popular because cannabis is a working-class drug,” he tells me. “It’s the tradies, the mine workers, people on farms. It’s the people working in warehouses, service industries voting for us.”
At last year’s state election the party’s biggest successes were in the western suburbs, the Central Coast and the Hunter. In the inner city, it barely registered a blip. Still, despite the party’s recent successes, drug policy reform in Australia has been plagued by political timidity for years. In 2019, Chris Minns, then a shadow minister, argued for legalisation. As premier, he’s been far more cautious, although a drug summit is on the cards for this year.
The contrast with the United States, where 24 states have now legalised cannabis, couldn’t be sharper. But Buckingham is an optimist. He’s bullish about getting a federal senator elected next year, and believes cannabis legalisation is a medium-term goal, achievable within a few years.
During our conversation that optimism often gives way to a utopian vision of a legal cannabis future for Australia, which Buckingham describes in swashbuckling missionary zeal.
Legal weed will, he says, kneecap the cocaine gangs causing bloodshed on the streets of southwest Sydney who use cannabis as a “cash cow”.
It will also reduce alcohol-fuelled violence, he believes. “You never see anyone at a McDonald’s carpark get in a punch-on because they’ve had too many bongs.”
To those worried that this will make pot more accessible for children, leaving a whole generation even more sluggish, lazy, stupid and unconcerned (to quote the Frank Ocean track) Buckingham counters that weed will simply be less cool if it’s made legal.
“For millennials and zoomers, taking grandma’s back pain medication isn’t cool.”
And he maintains that the American model, where legalisation has enabled the growth of a sometimes rapacious, multibillion-dollar industry of cannabis cowboys, isn’t one he’s keen to emulate.
“We want to make sure that drug use is done safely and responsibly, and doesn’t tip over into abuse,” he says.
“We certainly don’t want to see the adoption of a full sort of commercial model, with widespread advertising and that kind of thing.”
For all Buckingham’s bluster, there’s a sense that the tide is starting to turn. Once upon a time, the Legalise Cannabis Party were dismissed as hippy weirdos from Nimbin. In Parliament, Buckingham says he’s gotten a good hearing from all sides of politics. Shock jocks once struck the fear of god into politicians looking at drug reform. Now Ben Fordham has him on 2GB.
Perhaps the dial would shift further if more Australians in positions of power and influence were willing to be honest about their drug use. Surely, Macquarie Street has its share of stoners, closet or otherwise? I ask Buckingham how many of his parliamentary colleagues have, at the very least, hit a joint. “Almost everyone,” he says.
The possession, use, supply and unlicensed cultivation of cannabis is illegal in most Australian states and territories. Penalties vary between each state and territory. Medicinal cannabis can be prescribed by authorised health care professionals. More information about the health effects of cannabis use can be found at the Alcohol and Drug Foundation and drug counselling websites.