Danish cannabis policy in practice

The closing of 'Pusher Street' and the cannabis market in Copenhagen
Vibeke Asmussen
Published in: Drugs in Society: European Perspectives
Radcliffe Publishing: 2007

publicationDanish drug policy has been reversed from liberal to more repressive, especially in 2003, when the Danish liberal-conservative government that had been in office since 2001 launched their official policy on drugs, The Fight Against Drugs: action plan against drug misuse. This action plan emphasised a more repressive drug policy in which priority was given to law enforcement, although an expansion of treatment facilities and prevention initiatives was also planned. The overall aim was to tighten the laws on drug dealing and drug use and to increase the penalties for these offences. The plan explicitly stated that the policy was to take a zero tolerance approach towards any kind of drug dealing.

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The fact that the liberal-conservative wing of the Danish parliament holds this attitude is not new. The different drug control policies of this wing (which do not differentiate between users and dealers, or between 'hard' and 'soft' drugs) and the centre-left (which do) have been a battlefield in Danish drug policy for the past 30 years. The centre-left wing, headed by the Social Democratic Party, dominated Danish drug policy until 2001, when the present liberal-conservative government came into office. Although the Social Democratic Party did tighten some aspects of their drug policy, whether they would have continued to do so to the extent that the liberal-conservatives subsequently did is a matter for speculation.

One aspect of the present government's more repressive drug policy was to crack down on cannabis dealing as well as cannabis use. The focus of this chapter is the closing of 'Pusher Street', one of the most well-known places for buying cannabis in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. Pusher Street, named by the government as Northern Europe's largest open cannabis market, has been situated in the Free City of Christiania from the mid-1970s. In 2003, it consisted of about 40 decorated stalls where different kinds of cannabis were sold. Over the years, there have been police actions, raids and arrests of dealers in Pusher Street but there had never been a political decision or an organised operation to close it. However, in March 2004 the stalls were removed in a massive police action, and 50 cannabis dealers and 'security guards' (lookouts to warn the dealers of approaching police) were arrested.

Studies of cannabis policy show that repressive policies do not have an effect on the consumption of cannabis or, it can be deduced from this, on its supply. When investigating the effect of police actions and raids, the question of where and how cannabis dealing emerges again is raised, although research into locations, the size of the market, personnel and turnover is hampered, as it is with any criminal activity, by the hidden nature of the activity. In Copenhagen, cannabis was sold from Pusher Street, from 'hash clubs' (which can be compared to Dutch coffee shops where cannabis is sold and consumed, but are totally illegal in Denmark), in the street, from cars and homes, and via the telephone and the Internet.

This chapter outlines the drug-related legal changes that have recently been made in Denmark, and describes how their implementation supports the government's more repressive drug policy. Pusher Street is then contextualised and a short history of Christiania is provided, demonstrating how both have become thorns in the government's side. The chapter continues with an analysis of how Pusher Street was closed and kept closed, how cannabis dealing was then dispersed across Copenhagen, and how two methods of dealing (hash clubs and street dealing) in particular were brought to public attention by the newspapers. The chapter ends with a discussion of why some parts of the dispersed cannabis market were brought to public attention and others were not.