Tony Bower lives in a rural part of Australia’s sub-tropical North Coast. The area is home to as many dairy cows as there are people. It’s the sort of place where a person can get lost or lose themselves—if that’s what they’re looking for. There’s plenty of reasons to keep a low profile while growing an illegal crop in Australia: police, jail, getting ripped off. But Tony Bower takes these risks in stride. What’s important to him is that people who need medicine receive it.
Tony is short and gruff on the phone. His answers don’t often extend past one or two words, the minimum required to make his point. He tells me, “Watch for the canons as you come in.” Okay, I think, then ask, “They’re not going to shoot me or anything, are they?” On the other end of the line I hear the first of many grave chuckles, like the sound of rocks pulled along in a river current. “Nah, mate,” he answers. “You should be ‘right.”
Tony Bower is many things: collector, distiller, tinkerer, fisherman and Australia’s best cannabis grower. Tony is from the Indigenous Wiradjuri Nation; his country is the landlocked flat plains of New South Wales. Think south and west of Sydney, over the great dividing range and the Blue Mountains, into arable, rolling, dry landscapes the colour of wheat.
He grew up in Wiradjuri country in Bathurst, a country city most famous in Australia for a motor race that snakes its way around Mount Panorama. “I was always outside of society,” shares Tony. “We were the only Aboriginal family in Bathurst. When I was a kid, I wasn’t counted as an Australian—we were counted as fauna with the sheep and kangaroos. No one was talking about black or white fellas. I didn’t know I was any different. The information was withheld from us. We were only allowed access to the local pool on Wednesday nights. I didn’t know it was because we were Aboriginal. Mum said it was because we had a different religion.”
Coming from a farming community, at a young age he began to experiment with breeding plants. Perhaps most importantly, he developed the habit of recording everything he noticed about his plants and their lifecycle. “The plant grows to you,” Tony explains. “That’s why when you grow your own dope, it’s always better than someone else’s. The cannabis plant isn’t able to spread unless you do it, so it has to keep you happy.” This habit of documenting everything followed him through his career as a commercial grower and led him to develop a deep understanding of the cannabis plant at a time when little information was widely available. He eventually created his own breed, Clever Man.
The Compassion Club
Of course, as someone who had little time for authority, Tony had run-ins with the law. “I went to jail a couple of times when I was a kid. All cultivation-related,” he says. But it was his first experience at Australia’s MardiGrass festival that showed Tony there was much more to be done with cannabis than pumping out crops for profit. “My first MardiGrass was ‘98,” reminisces Tony. “I met some people and they ran a Compassion Club. They got leaf off people, cooked it all up and sent out cookies with a little certificate and all that. It was sort of above-board, the government knew it was happening. I thought, righty-o, I have a lot of leaf, and the dope I was growing was much better than anybody had up there.”
It was the beginning of Tony’s compassion mission. Once he realized he was better qualified than anyone else to deliver medicine, he took the responsibility seriously. “I’ve got 500 people on my books. These are sick people. I’d drive up to Nimbin and set up the bus, and people would come and see me. People have always had to give me a doctor’s letter saying what’s wrong with them. They’ve gotta prove that they’re sick. Otherwise, I fall under the Drugs Misuse Act.” Tony has continued to operate in this legal gray space ever since.
The Good Herb
Australia’s Cannabis Cup has been held in secret somewhere in Northern New South Wales. Tony Bower and the flower he uses to create his Mullaway tinctures have been making the journey to the competition for years. “I’ve won the cannabis cup every year since 2000. I gave up in 2013,” he says. The timing of his retirement from cannabis competition coincided with an arrest that led to a three-month stint in jail for cultivation. “You do the crime; be prepared to do the time. I’ve always said that my argument isn’t with the cops, my argument is with the government.” That hasn’t stopped his influence on Australian cannabis at the top level. “People who are growing Clever Man are still winning the cup.”
Don’t be A. Stoner
Tony’s activism has never had the feel of a well-organized political movement; instead, he likes to throw himself headlong into trouble with the aim of starting a conversation. “I used to give the tincture away on the main street of town,” he remembers. By luck, the local member of parliament was named Andrew Stoner. “I’d set up a stall out the front of Stoner’s office and be yelling, ‘Free medical cannabis! Don’t be A. Stoner. Use medical cannabis!’ We’re good friends now, but I used to put it on him a bit. I’d follow him around to meetings and give him heaps. He would say, ‘People like you, it doesn’t matter! No matter what we do, you’d have something to say about it.’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know, try doing something and we’ll see.’” Tony’s face creases with a smile at these recollections.
The Middle Finger Approach
Of the few people who have openly provided medical cannabis to patients in Australia, Tony’s approach has been the most confrontational. “I’ve always said, the best form of defense is attack. While I was attacking the government, what are they going to do to me? We used to carry the tincture into parliament house, tried to give it to some of the politicians.” With the help of his wife, Julie, who he married when he was 18, Tony created a supply that can medicate hundreds of patients. But I get the feeling this has all been a bit fun. “In some ways,” he shares. “But back then it was pretty serious. I was looking after a lot of people with illness. I was trying to make it all, send it out—just me and Julie. Trying to do it all ourselves. It was bloody hard work.”
Taking the weight
Tony is at an age now where someone in a more typical career path would be looking at retirement, and health problems experienced by his wife have caused him to slow down. “That’s mostly why I’ve stopped trying to annoy the government,” he tells me. “Because I want to be here to look after her. We’ve been married since I was 18. We’ve got three kids. My sons have 10 kids between them.”
It’s difficult to say where Australian cannabis would be without Tony’s life’s work. He forced a conversation to take place while others remained silent. He’s helped hundreds— perhaps thousands—of patients. And he’s done it all while putting himself at risk, knowing there is little chance of personal reward. “I take my responsibility seriously,” he asserts. “I help because I can.”