The air is brisk one spring afternoon when I bump into an old acquaintance, Daniel*, hanging out in a quiet park between Vesterbrogade and Istedgade. We chat, and I ask what he’s doing here all alone.
“Buying weed,” he answers curtly, and I follow his eyes to a corner of the park where a group of young men are hanging around a picnic table.
Until the early 2000s, Copenhagen’s cannabis trade was centred in Christiania, an autonomous enclave of the city featuring around two dozen stalls where a variety of cannabis products were sold to locals and tourists.
But after a succession of police crackdowns on Christiania in the early 2000s, the cannabis trade became more decentralised, spreading throughout the city. Dealers could suddenly be found on street corners, even in the city centre.
Ever since, gangs have been fighting to control the street trade of cannabis, and this summer the conflict flared again. One local gang based on Blågårdsgade in Nørrebro has been pushing into new territory, leading to confrontations and shootings. Police have designated large parts of the city as stop-and-search zones, and the helicopters that seem to perpetually hover above the city have infuriated residents.
Several people have been shot, none with any connection to the gang community.
Daniel knows that buying his drugs from these street dealers contributes to the escalating conflict – but he doesn’t have any choice.
“If you go to Christiania, you have to prepare yourself mentally, and not just because of the risk of being stopped by the police while you’re out there,” he tells me later.
For while the cannabis trade still exists in Christiania, it’s been taken over by a tough criminal community that hides behind camouflage netting to sell their wares. A year ago, the district’s residents tried to evict these dealers, but it didn’t last long, and they were powerless to stop the gangs from returning.
“Before the crackdown, Christiania was completely different – relaxed and idyllic. Music would be playing, and you could ask the dealers about what you were buying like it was a straightforward business transaction. But it’s no longer like that – you can’t engage in polite conversations with these pushers.”
Free the weed
The solution for many is obvious: legalise cannabis. Lord Mayor Frank Jensen has long supported the idea of a three-year trial legalisation programme, in which the municipality would run five or six dispensaries around the city selling cannabis products at the same prices as the criminal markets. Only adult residents of Denmark would be eligible to buy the products at dispensaries, which would also provide information and access to counselling and treatment for heavy users.
Representing the Social Democrats (Socialdemokrater), Jensen has submitted five applications to launch a trial legalisation, but has been rejected by both left and right wing governments. With criminal networks remaining resilient despite a raft of legislation passed by left and right-wing governments to curtail gang crime, however, the idea of a trial legalisation is enjoying strengthened political support in parliament.
In an op-ed in Politiken newspaper, two members of the far-left Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) – MP Pernille Skipper and Copenhagen mayorial candidate Ninna Hedeager – point out that allowing for the legal cultivation, sale and consumption of cannabis can raise a lot of money for the state.
“We want a state-controlled hash market, inspired by the Swedish control of alcohol where children are denied access but where adults can buy legally under the supervision and information of knowledgeable people, and where the money goes into the pockets of the state, not the gangs,” they write.
“It wouldn’t solve all the problems, but it would reduce the gangs’ income and make them less able to recruit members, while also minimising the black market that they are shooting at each other to control.”
There is also support from Liberal Alliance – the only right-wing party to champion legalisation.
“The gangs are fighting for a share of the market, which we have made criminal,” MP Laura Lindahl told Jyllands-Posten newspaper, adding that the time had come to legalise cannabis.
“Year after year, justice ministers have presented initiative after initiative, but the problem just continues to escalate. That’s because of the illegal market.”
While the Socialdemokrater in City Hall support legalisation, their colleagues in Parliament rejected an application for trial legalisation in 2014 when they were last in power. Socialdemokrater MP Tine Bramsen was justice minister at the time and argued that there was no evidence that the programme would be better at reducing crime than the government’s other anti-gang initiatives.
“I want to see more responsibility being taken by residents who buy cannabis and put money directly into the pockets of gangs,” Bramsen told Politiken newspaper at the time.
That the Socialdemokrater disagree on the national and local political level is a matter of diverging priorities, explains Associate Professor Kim Møller from the Department of Sociology at Aalborg University.
Most countries, including Denmark, base their narcotics legislation on international conventions, such as the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The few countries, regions and cities that have decriminalised recreational cannabis use have been met with condemnation by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“When Frank Jensen was justice minister for the Social Democrats in the 1990s, he was opposed to legalised cannabis, but as Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, he supports it,” says Møller, whose primary area of research is drug markets and organised crime.
“This is because as justice minister, his primary concern was Denmark’s responsibility to international conventions and protecting Denmark’s reputation in an international context. Denmark is a small country with an open economy and benefits little when it goes against partners in the EU and US. But as Lord Mayor, his priority is addressing the conflicts that are playing out on the city’s streets, rather than abstract international commitments.”
A billion kroner market
International embarrassment could be a risk worth taking, however. While the US state of Colorado has shown that recreational cannabis can generate significant tax revenue, Møller argues that it would also go some way to limiting gang activity.
“These gangs have a limited list of income-generating crimes available to them – sale of drugs, protection money and racketeering, prostitution, robbery and burglary. But many of these activities are much riskier and more complicated than selling cannabis, which takes place where they are normally spending time – on the streets. The sale of cannabis also has a lot of accessible jobs, such as being a lookout or a runner, which makes it easy for gangs to recruit members,” says Møller.
According to a number of different surveys, including the National Police’s own estimates, the cannabis trade is worth around a billion kroner every year in Copenhagen alone. Møller argues that the gangs will continue to control a small share of this trade even if it is legalised, as they will be able to retain customers willing to take the risk of buying it through illegal channels in exchange for lower prices.
But with fewer sales and reduced income, they are likely to weaken and become less attractive to potential members.
“They would lose a lot of easy revenue. The gangs will have to put more effort into dealing hard drugs and other crimes, but these crimes are more cumbersome than selling cannabis, which is currently their primary source of income and the least risky. So although they will continue to be criminals, they will have a harder time doing so, and crime will be displaced.”
In January the right wing coalition government again rejected an application from City Hall to trial a legalisation of cannabis. Ahead of the decision, Copenhagen’s Mayor for Social Affairs Jesper Christensen (Socialdemokrater), argued that state run dispensaries would enable social workers to identify young people at risk of drug abuse.
“Through the legalisation and destigmatisation of cannabis we could rid it of its connection to crime, and provide a path for young people who want to exit criminal environments,” Christensen told Information.
Daniel supports the idea, and says he would pay a premium to buy cannabis from the state.
“It makes no sense that it is currently impossible. You can buy alcohol at any kiosk, and there is virtually no difference. Many studies have shown that alcohol is riskier than cannabis. I have no clue why we are spending billions of kroner fighting the side effects of keeping a drug illegal when we could end crime and make money by legalising it. No one I know who buys weed wants to support criminal gangs. We are just ordinary law-abiding citizens – we just happen to want to harmlessly intoxicate ourselves, too.” M
*Daniel is not his real name. His identity is known to the editorial staff.