The Freetown Christiania has transformed from an alternative ‘hippie’ commune to a hub for hardened criminals in recent years. The Pusher Street was covered with military netting and the dealers sold cannabis while wearing masks and carrying weapons.
But they have now been banished from the street and residents and tourists can, for the first time, take photographs openly. On Friday morning, the residents started tearing down the pusher booths, and as I stroll through I see people sweeping up debris and carting off the wooden huts to be dismantled in the central square.
The decision followed a shooting outside Christiania on Wednesday night. Plainclothes police stopped a man, Mesa Hodzic, who opened fire, shooting two policemen and a civilian. One of the policeman was hit in the head and remains in a critical condition. Hodzic was later shot when police apprehended him in the suburb Tårnby by police, and died from his wounds.
On Thursday, Christiania residents held a meeting where they agreed to tear down the pusher booths. In a press release, they expressed their sympathies for the families of the injured policemen, but said they were not powerful enough to prevent the criminal community from returning.
“Christiania cannot take responsibility for housing all of Denmark’s hash trade,” they wrote. “We can remove but we cannot be sure that they won’t return. We need all of Denmark’s help to do so. If you want to support Christiania, don’t buy your hash there.”
Admission of defeat
Christiania residents are sitting in the central square beneath white pavilions, while young people dismantle the booths behind them. Among them is Mette Pagode, a Christiania resident of 28 years, who says that Christianites have tried to control the cannabis market through dialogue, but that over the past few months the situation has felt increasingly hopeless.
“I have witnessed how the market has gotten more and more raw and how the conflict has grown. There’s so much money in the trade, which is run by people we cannot talk to, which makes us sad and frustrated. The shooting was the straw that broke the camel’s back. We weren’t getting anywhere with dialogue, and people have been harassed and beaten up,” she says.
The increasing level of violence in intimidation in Christiania was confirmed by another resident, who says the pushers have openly carried weapons and threatened to use them when their behaviour was questioned.
Pagode says she and other residents will need to sit on the square day and night over the coming weeks to prevent the return of the pushers, but that ultimately they can’t fight the battle alone.
“Denmark needs to help us close this hash market. It is significant that this is the first time we have admitted we need help. We need people to buy their cannabis elsewhere, and we need to legalise it too,” she says.
“We love this place and craziness it has and the difference. And we want to keep that. It’s what keeps us together. And it’s threatened.”
Morten Dybdahl, a 27-year-old businessman, took the day off work to help with the dismantling of the pusher booths.
“This place was founded with the wish of having a peaceful and free place and now it’s become a parallel society where the hash trade has tyranised everything else,” he says.
The Freetown Christiania was established in 1971 when squatters occupied a disused military barracks in Christianshavn. Attempts to ‘”normalise” Christiania by successive governments ultimately resulted in the decision in 2011 to transfer ownership of the land to a fund, Fonden Fristaden Christiania, which is collectively owned by residents.
“Culturally historically, it’s an important place to preserve,” Dybdahl.
While Christiania residents want Copenhageners to buy their cannabis elsewhere, the question is where? Previous attempts to close the market by police resulted in increased gang activity as the market spread across the city.
To counter the illegal trade, which is estimated to turnover around one billion kroner a year, Copenhagen Lord Mayor has attempted several times to implement a test legalisation of cannabis in Copenhagen, which has so far yet to receive the support of the national parliament, Folketinget.
After the shooting on Wednesday, he took to Facebook to express his dismay and to call for Folketinget to seriously consider legalising cannabis.
“I want to test legalise cannabis,” he wrote. “I believed this before the awful events at Christiania on Wednesday and night before the Christianites took the important and long awaited decision to clear Pusher Street.”
He added that he was pleased that national politicians had now voiced their support of Jensen’s proposal. Among them Morten Østergaard, leader of the Social Liberal Party (Radikale).
“I support a national test of state controlled cannabis sale,” Østergaard wrote on Facebook, adding that he used to worry that the health concerns of cannabis were too grave to consider legalising the substance.
“The idea of eradicating the sale of cannabis is an illusion. But we can take the gangs out of the equation.”
Radikale now joins Liberal Alliance, The Alternative (Alternativet), the Socialist People’s Party (SF) and the Red-Green Alliance in the support for legal cannabis. They lack a majority, however, as the three largest parties in parliament have not come out in support.
Among them is the government Liberal Party (Venstre), which is not convinced.
“We follow the advice of the Danish Health Authority (Sundhedsstyrelsen) […] Hash is dangerous, it’s a gateway drug, and it’s addictive,” Venstre’s legal spokesperson Preben Bang Henriksen told Berlingske.
“That is why Venstre’s position, as it always has been, that it should not be legalised.”
Without a legal option, however, the gangs who control the lucrative cannabis trade are unlikely to cease operations. Copenhageners will have no choice but to continue to line the pockets of the gangs, whose ruthless tactics are unlikely to soften as they attempt to create a new market on the streets of Copenhagen. M