Destruction in Christiania: The Cannabis Policy in Denmark
On the 2nd of September, the open-air cannabis market in Christiania, the Danish ‘Freetown’ that has been raided by police numerous times over the last decade, was torn down again. This time by its own citizens. Why has this happened, and what does it tell us about cannabis policy in Denmark?
First of all, a little history: Freetown Christiania was founded in 1971 on the site of the former military barracks of Bådsmandsstræde, which had been abandoned by the Danish government in 1967. Jacob Ludvigsen, a well known local journalist, declared the town open in an article in his own magazine, Hovedbladet. Under the headline ‘Civilians Conquered the Forbidden City of the Military,’ came the first declaration of intent from those behind the movement:
‘Christiania is the land of the settlers. It is the so far biggest opportunity to build up a society from scratch – while nevertheless still incorporating the remaining constructions. Own electricity plant, a bath-house, a giant athletics building, where all the seekers of peace could have their grand meditation – and yoga center. Halls where theater groups can feel at home. Buildings for the stoners who are too paranoid and weak to participate in the race…Yes for those who feel the beating of the pioneer heart there can be no doubt as to the purpose of Christiania. It is the part of the city which has been kept secret to us – but no more.’
The spirit of the town is firmly in the hippy tradition, but the focus of this piece, and the main reason Christiania became famous, is its attitude towards cannabis consumption. The most famous street in town is known as Pusher Street, where market stalls have for decades openly sold cannabis and hashish with little pushback from the authorities.
This trade was officially ended in 2004, the direct results of which can be seen as a precursor to what is happening now. Of course, the cannabis trade did not go away once the authorities attempted to clamp down, but rather organised crime moved in to fill the void. The resulting feuds over territory culminated on April 24th, 2005, when 6-8 masked men with automatic weapons opened fire on a crowd of people on Pusher Street. One 26 year old Christiania resident was killed, and three others were injured.
Back then, anger at the incident was mostly directed at the Danish government, and Pusher Street remained operational. So why have the locals now torn it down? The reason, tragically, is another shooting, this time involving police.
On August 31st a man believed to be carrying the day’s takings from cannabis sales on Pusher Street was stopped by police officers. This is hardly that unusual an occurrence, even in Christiania. But this time, for some reason, the man decided to pull a gun on the police. He shot two officers and a civilian, one of whom received life threatening injuries and is still in a critical condition. After a search and another shootout, the ‘pusher’ in question was himself shot by the police, and later died from his wounds.
The residents of Christiania held a meeting. They had had enough of the growing violence, they decided; it was time to tear down Pusher Street.
This time, unlike in 2005, residents blamed the violence and bloodshed on the cannabis market, not the government. It’s easy to see why – here is a community built on the hippy ideals of peace, love, and tolerance, and it has been slowly infiltrated and taken over by organised criminals, to the point that people were being shot and killed in the streets.
Reports coming out of Denmark have stated that despite the decision to tear down Pusher Street, support remains relatively strong for de facto decriminalisation and/or legalisation within Christiania, which is promising. Because it is vital that rather than turning their backs on the ideals they have fought for for decades, and giving in to the gangs, the people of this Freetown use their experience to highlight the drastic need for a change in drug policy on a national and international scale, to defeat the gangs that bring chaos and carnage to their streets and the streets of millions of others worldwide.
Denmark does, surprisingly, operate an almost-decriminalisation model of drug policy nationally. They even have supervised injection facilities for heroin users. But despite possession of drugs for personal use not generally being a criminal offence, it can still result in a fine and occasionally still a prison sentence. Clearly this model has not been enough to end the violence, and a new approach is needed. We can but hope that it is towards liberalisation and not away from it, or else the bloodshed seen in Christiania last week is unlikely to be the last.
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