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Freetown Christiania: Copenhagen’s Greenlight District

Photo by Aleah Taboclaon

In The Magazine

Freetown Christiania: Copenhagen’s Greenlight District

Luce and Stephanie Belland can’t believe the size of the joint being rolled at the picnic table next to them. A French mother and daughter travelling through Scandinavia for the first time, they learned about this peculiar place called Freetown Christiania while on a guided tour through Copenhagen, Denmark. They laugh at how their guide warned them not to go to Christiania — a place he described as overrun with “hash dealers and thugs.”

Mother and daughter confess they changed their original travel plans set for the Tivoli Gardens just so they could experience Freetown’s infamous cannabis marketplace called Pusher Street.

“We had to come here,” says the younger Belland, 18. “It just sounded so interesting.”

It’s an immaculately warm, sunny day in the small plaza at the heart of Freetown. Having just completed a bus tour through Copenhagen, the Bellands are now lounging in the outdoor beer garden at Café Nemoland off Pusher Street enjoying cold pilsners at 11:30 a.m. Pot smoke wafts through the fresh autumn air.

There’s a carnival atmosphere in the crowded square with music vacillating from Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” to a deep-bass Primus track that shakes the floor. Conversations in several languages crisscross the area. Both Bellands are wide-eyed as they watch the gentleman on the bench next to them add yet another rolling paper (his fifth) to the coned joint he’s been carefully constructing for the past 10 minutes. He has the massive spliff pointed to the sky like a deep-space telescope.

“I don’t think he plans to stop rolling before it reaches a meter,” says the older Belland, 41, who believes it’s perfectly acceptable that her teenage daughter be present here viewing this activity.

“I think it’s healthy for the youth to see this kind of civil liberty,” she says. “If you hide marijuana in dark places it can only add to a negative mystique and the idea that this substance is harmful, which, of course, it’s not if respected.”

Not in the EU

It truly defies logic to see a place like Pusher Street in action. On this small strip of valuable land, bound by water and a short walk from downtown Copenhagen, there exists this booming, outdoor marijuana marketplace like no other.

Entering Freetown, the first visible thing is a large rough hewn sign overhead announcing “Christiania” like the entrance to a medieval hamlet. Turn around just after passing under it and read, etched on the back side the declaration, “You are now entering the EU.”

It’s no joke. One step into this settlement and things start to feel different. The European Union and traditional society have been left behind. Like walking into a favela in Rio de Janeiro, it’s understood at a base, animal level that someone other than the typical, button-up, city politicians are in charge here. Stories abound in the area of violent turf wars and assorted political land grabs for this precious slice of prime city real estate.

At every turn near Pusher Street, there are menacing graffiti warnings and signs reminding visitors — many of them foreigner travelers — about the prohibition of cameras. Before traveling from the U.S. to Denmark, a friend in Copenhagen who knew some professional photographers asked if I’d want to have photos taken of the cannabis vending area. But, speaking with a local provided further insight into the complications of attempting to get images.

“It´s strictly prohibited to take pictures of any kind of selling of cannabis or even taking pictures in the general area where that takes place,” says Copenhagen local Klaus Smedegaard, noting that other areas in Christiania away from the vendors would be okay. “I would like to know if you want to follow the unwritten rules of how to go about taking pictures in Christiania or if you want to push the envelope?”

There’s a feeling that punishment for a guest flouting the rules and snapping off photos will be swift and brutal.

The (Mostly) Greenlight District

A street vendor — who wears Gucci sunglasses and looks more like a Silicon Valley software engineer than a drug dealer — dons blue garden gloves and is nudging a large brick of hash across a plywood tabletop. The hash he’s displaying is the size and shape of a Hershey bar, the color of fresh, hot cocoa and is resting there between us — right out in the open for all the world to see. There are another 15 hash bricks wrapped in cellophane resting on the table beside him, as well as 3 to 4 pounds of sticky, fresh, green herb in Ziploc bags.

Welcome to the flourishing greenlight district five minutes from downtown Copenhagen, where the laws surrounding marijuana are murky at best; where this strange social experiment (as it’s referred to by Danes) is allowed to exist in a semi-tolerated, free-market state.

Standing in a cannabis booth on Pusher Street is a decidedly dream-like experience. The sheer quantity and assortment of available product displayed is staggering. It makes the heart race. It would make anyone want to run away to a safe place. One simply cannot glimpse an illicit scene like this in public without reflexively looking for an escape route should things turn south and the cops descend.

Within the 50-yard stretch of cobblestone road on either side of the vendor’s makeshift, plywood booth are roughly a dozen or so similar cannabis stands — all draped in military camouflage netting to guard from prying eyes. One recent report states that there have been nearly 6,000 police raids that have gone down on Pusher Street since 2004. And locals say at times that there have been as many as 100 vendors hawking their “soft drug” merchandise to the very receptive public on Pusher Street.

There’s an understanding here amongst the population that no hard drugs like crystal meth, heroin or cocaine are ever allowed — only cannabis products. In fact, the Hells Angels and Bandito biker gangs, who reportedly run the drug trade here (an estimated $200 million annual market), are dead serious about maintaining the status quo. People have been beaten, exiled and worse for hard drug infractions.

Pusher Street is currently bustling with eager patrons picking through an assortment of marijuana buds, hash and concentrates like shoppers at a weekend farmer’s market. What makes this transaction all the more surreal is the fact that the sale and possession of cannabis in Denmark is, and always has been, completely unlawful. Not even medical marijuana is permitted here.

The hash dealer taps lightly on the 20 gram brick he’s proffering to hasten our sale as a line of people swells behind us. He quotes what seems like a fair price after carefully explaining the brick’s origin, strength and overall effect. He describes the product with such elegance — like a vintner conveying the virtues of a rare cabernet — for a split second I forget how categorically illegal this all is.

After a moment he says in a cordial voice, “Excuse me, but I have other customers waiting.”

Squatters, Cannabis and the Social Experiment

The cannabis market on Pusher Street might never have happened were it not for the social upheaval of the 1960s hippie culture — a period when the widespread acceptance of marijuana was reaching a tipping point worldwide. The approximately 85-acre village now known as Freetown Christiania was formerly a military barracks abandoned by the Danish Navy in the 1950s following World War II. In the early 1970s a group of industrious and opportunistic anarchists cut holes in the fences surrounding the barracks and simply moved in, slowly establishing the place as their own.

The idea of squatting urban land was by no means a strictly Scandinavian concept. It was occurring in the 1960s all across the world from the United Kingdom to parts of India and the U.S., spawn by youth revolts, economic recession and a widespread lack of affordable housing. It was, however, a bit uncommon for squatters to brazenly take over lands controlled by the military.

Nils Vest, the documentary filmmaker of “Christiania, You Have My Heart” and resident of Freetown for over 35 years, tells how people began moving into the barracks with the idea to transform it into a communal society.

“These people wanted more space for themselves and their children,” says the 71-year-old community member. “At the time, very few houses were being built in Copenhagen. There were conflicts here between the local people — mostly working class shipyard workers — and the military administration. The locals actually set fire to the barracks and burned them down.”

The military eventually agreed that they didn’t need the land any longer — and more to the point they didn’t need the aggravation brought on by pot-smoking, arsonist, hippie squatters — and left the problem in the hands of the government. Being a social democratic administration at the time, the government eventually allowed Christiania to exist under the terms that it would be looked at as a “social experiment.” An astonishing turn of events, as the city land is prime Copenhagen real estate.

From that time forward, Freetown has been a more or less autonomous, self-governing society of roughly 800 to 900 citizens with its own leaders, rules and budgets separate from the rest of Copenhagen. And with that self-governance came its own relaxed views about cannabis usage.

“Marijuana has been a really natural part of both the community of Freetown and the hippie movement,” continues Vest. “There have always been artists that lived here in Christiania, lots of musicians, a very artistic milieu. And of course a lot of artists like to smoke weed.”

By the late ’70s, the social experiment of Freetown was in full swing and the stage was set for the marijuana explosion that would later become Pusher Street’s thriving retail bud market.

The Rise of the Pot Vendor

The origins of those early Freetown settlers — rooted in anarchy, societal revolt and self-rule — were a perfect match for the cannabis vendors who pioneered Pusher Street in a parallel manner. Both groups wanted government off their backs and both had financial forces driving their actions.

Vest explains the symbiosis that developed between the very distinctive groups of the Freetown community and cannabis dealers, and that allowing Pusher Street to exist has always been the best possible solution.

“You have a neighborhood here where people are officially regarded as criminals, but I prefer to see them as human beings,” says Vest, who notes that a large part of why the relationship between the two groups works in Freetown is because from the very beginning pot dealers have shared the villagers’ philosophy against hard drug sales.

“In the late seventies there came coke, speed, heroin and pills of various kinds to Christiania,” says Vest. “So we said if Christiania will survive we should get rid of the hard drugs. We agreed that we needed to unite with those people selling only cannabis products. The [cannabis] dealers, some of them, are out on the streets all day. We thought they could help us to keep out people selling hard drugs.”

So, a kind of twisted, street-dealer community watch developed with pot dealers responsible for policing the area and ensuring that no hard drugs were being sold. In 1979 Vest tells how he was part of the infamous “Junk Blockade” made up of Freetown locals who banded together with dealers to physically throw out the hard drug merchants, specifically heroin “junk” dealers.

“We decided to put together a task force. After the first wave of refusing hard drugs in Christiania, when it happened again, the people in the hash selling milieu needed to make it clear to the dealers of hard drugs,” continues Vest. “So, they stripped a few hard drug dealers of their clothing and wrote on them with large Sharpie markers: ‘I HAVE BEEN SELLING HARD DRUGS IN CHRISTIANIA’ and pushed them out onto the streets. So you had people walking around totally naked on the streets.”

Word spread amongst the hard drug set that those highly addictive drugs would not be tolerated in Freetown. Some tried to fight against the consensus and were beaten up. Eventually hard drug pushers got the message that they were not wanted and stayed away. Since that time Pusher Street has seen only cannabis sales in the vending booths, says Vest, who identifies that era as the starting point of the pot retailer explosion.

“If there were ten people selling pot in 1979, then 10 years later there were 50 —and today I’d say close to 100 vendors,” he says.

With such a huge number of vendors — and revenues to match — vying for space on Pusher Street, Christiania has not been without its dramas. Gunfire has filled the air on sporadic occasions as dealers battle for turf. And one local casually mentions a large drug sting operation that occurred last spring, saying nearly 40 people from the area were busted and are now awaiting their fates from the courts.

But still, it’s business as usual today on Pusher Street.

Locals know full well that police raids will happen and violent turf wars will flare up in the streets and then subside, as they always have, passing like summer squalls. And every few years an eager politician will make a play at trying to uproot the members of Christiania to build luxury condos or a mall on this valuable piece of Copenhagen real estate. And inevitably the cannabis dealers and community members will unite again and weather the storms.

But for now, the vendors keep on dealing, Christiania keeps on existing — and the social experiment called Freetown pushes onward through its 44th year.

Originally published in issue 13 of Cannabis Now Magazine.

Have you ever visited Christiania? Tell us about it in the comments.

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