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In Denmark, Raid on Christiania’s Cannabis Market Spurs Push for Reform

On Friday, June 17, nearly a hundred police officers descended on Christiania, a famous autonomous neighborhood in Copenhagen where cannabis is freely bought and sold. The authorities raided 37 stalls on the open-air cannabis market called Pusher Street, tearing down structures, arresting 17 people, and seizing about 10 kilos of cannabis. 

It certainly wasn't the first time Christiania has been raided by police since it began as a commune in 1971. But this time, the action was met with strong condemnation by other prominent figures in Danish law enforcement.

A visit to Christiana is an unforgettable experience. What started with a handful of hippies squatting in old army barracks on the edge of Copenhagen has grown into a full-blown alternative village, with its own shops, restaurants, and a thriving, open-air cannabis market. Known as Freetown Christiania by some, the area covers 84 acres, has about 900 residents, and receives more than half a million visitors every year.

Christiania. Photo by Derrick Bergman

Photo by Derrick Bergman

Pusher Street, a row of outdoor stalls that sell cannabis, has been the main interest of both tourists and authorities ever since Christiania was founded. And for years police have sporadically raided Pusher Street, arresting sellers and confiscating products. The result is always the same: Soon after the raid, consumers turn to the black market and other dealers throughout Copenhagen. After a while, the stalls reopen, and buyers return to Christiania.

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Two things were different this time. First, the police acted quite aggressively. They chased people down, screamed at observers, and even beat bystanders with clubs. Within a week of the raids, a video of the police brutality was posted to YouTube. It was shared on Facebook more than a million times.

The second difference was the outspoken response from a number of prominent figures in Danish law enforcement. 

Christiania. Photo by Derrick Bergman

Photo by Derrick Bergman

Anne Birgitte Stürup, a senior prosecutor at the Copenhagen Public Prosecutor’s Office, was one such voice. “I personally believe we should legalize the sale of cannabis, because this is a fight we cannot win,” she told newspaper Jyllands-Posten. “We’ve tried fighting this for so many years and have gotten nowhere.

“We cannot stop the use of cannabis by outlawing it. It is expensive and of very little use.”

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The city of Copenhagen has requested permission three times from the national government to begin a pilot program to regulate cannabis in the city, but parliament has consistently voted down the proposal. Per Larsen, a former Copenhagen Police chief inspector, told Jyllands-Posten after the this month’s raid the city should be allowed to move forward with the trial: “The money is going into the wrong hands today,” he said, “and I think it could be used for something much more positive.”

Christiania. Photo by Derrick Bergman

Photo by Derrick Bergman

Former public prosecutor Erik Merlung accused the prohibitionists in Parliament of “shutting their eyes to reality.” 

“You make huge raids on Christiania, in which all of the stalls are torn down in the afternoon and then up and running again the next morning,” he said. “If not in Christiania, then other places in the city. It's a hopeless strategy.' 

The outpouring of support for a more tolerant cannabis policy, however, isn’t likely to lead to change anytime soon. In an email cited by Jyllands-Posten, Danish health minister Sophie Løhde destroyed hopes of a quick change. “Just like the previous government,” she wrote, “we have no plans to legalize cannabis.”

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