Copenhagen wants controlled cannabis shops

Regulating the cannabis market after a failed attempt to re-criminalise
Monday, January 9, 2012

The Copenhagen City Council is pushing ahead with a proposal to decriminalise cannabis, and has set up a committee to investigate the best way to regulate the supply and distribution. The favoured option is for 30 or 40 cannabis shops controlled by the city in which adults may legally buy cannabis. By a margin of 39 votes to nine, the City Council decided to draw up a detailed outline of how the plan would work. Subsequently, the resulting proposal still has to be ratified by the Danish parliament, which has blocked similar movements in the past. But after the national elections in September 2011 the current parliament could support decriminalisation this time around.

The details of the plan still need to be ironed out, but Mikkel Warming, the mayor in charge of Social Affairs, imagines a system similar to the state-owned alcohol monopoly that operates in neighbouring Sweden. The government would either grow marijuana itself or license growers. "We are thinking of perhaps 30 to 40 public dispensaries, where the people aren't interested in selling you more, they're interested in you," said Warming. "Who is it better for youngsters to buy marijuana from? A drug pusher, who wants them to use more, who wants them to buy hard drugs, or a civil servant?" He expects some 100 million euros in tax benefits for Copenhagen alone.

Watch the video by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) about legal regulation of cannabis in Copenhagen (or continue reading):

Warming pointed out that the Council wants Copenhagen’s decriminalisation to be further reaching than that of the Netherlands, where the growing and importation of cannabis remains illegal, despite its sale being tolerated in licensed coffeeshops. “We don’t want an Amsterdam model. We want a way to make it legal to import or grow marijuana,” he said. In fact, Danish drug policy was quite similar to the Dutch one until consecutive liberal-conservative government decided for a zero-tolerance approach and re-criminalised cannabis use. Originally the policy introduced in 1975 included a decriminalization of possession for personal use, a focus on public health in stead of law enforcement and a distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs (which also evaporated with the recriminalisation of the cannabis market).

The Copenhagen cannabis market is estimated to be worth around € 200 million (1.5 billion Danish kroner) per year, which is now controlled by criminal gangs. Social Democrat councillor Lars Aslan Andersen believes that taking over control of the trade would benefit all citizens, whether or not they consume cannabis, not to mention the city itself. “It’s better that the council distributes hashish and not criminals,” he said. “I hope we get the opportunity to try a new policy because we can’t just continue the current prohibition strategy with hash which is very outdated.”

Failed re-criminalisation

The proposal is a reaction to the failed re-criminalisation policies of consecutive liberal-conservative governments over the past decade. In 2004 the government changed the policy and possession for personal use of cannabis was re-criminalised – from a warning to an obligatory fine of 70 Euros (which was quadrupled in 2007). The law was followed by a police crackdown on Christiania’s open cannabis retail-market and so-called hash-clubs – clubs dealing cannabis or Dutch-style coffeeshops providing a social space as well – in the rest of Copenhagen. The change was part of an overall zero-tolerance drug control policy, embedded in a more general change of law and order politics in Denmark when the liberal-conservative came to power. 

The results have not been encouraging, to put it mildly. Street dealing emerged all over Copenhagen and market-related violence of criminal gangs disputing control over selling points increased; including people being killed by automatic weapons. Both police and politicians had to admit that the trade still thrived on the street, if in a somewhat more discreet fashion. The most violent groups of dealers that managed to withstand regular police raids now control the market. Police say that some have gang connections, and a gang war in 2009 has been directly linked to the drug trade. According to a recent study by Kim Moeller new actors on the black market are more willing to use violence and have gained a foothold geographically as well as financially.

According to another study by Moeller, Regulating Cannabis Markets in Copenhagen, the policy goals of diminishing drug dealing and ending the ‘pusher street’ in Christiania and other black markets seemed to have been achieved to some degree, but only cosmetically. The problems associated with retail cannabis dealing appeared to have been reduced in scope, but were essentially just hidden from public scrutiny and actually increased. Incidents of systemic violence in the new ruthlessly competitive black market due to the crackdown indicated the failure of the new repressive approach.

Others agree to some extent. “If the goal was to stop the trafficking of hashish in Christiania, then it has absolutely not succeeded,” the president of the Danish Police Officers Federation said. According to the police, the main reason why they failed to stop the cannabis trade completely is that it requires enormous resources.

From recriminalisation to regulation

Disappointed with the outcome of the re-criminalisation policies, the Copenhagen City Council in September 2009 approved a memorandum that proposed to run a three-year trial with cannabis stores staffed by health-care professionals that would sell cannabis in small quantities at about 50 kroner (about 7 euro) per gram – similar to the current street price. Only city residents would be able to buy the cannabis thus preventing Dutch-style ‘cannabis tourism’ – mostly coming from Sweden.

The Council decided in December 2009 to contact the Ministry of Justice to get permission to initiate a three-year pilot scheme to test whether a legally regulated cannabis market could have: (1) a positive impact on consumption and especially the abuse of cannabis; (2) create a platform for more effective public education about the impact and harm caused by cannabis use; (3) create a better and earlier contact between cannabis addicts and the treatment system; (4) reduce the transition from the use of cannabis to more dangerous and addictive substances; and (5) have a limiting effect on organized crime, especially violent gang crime. To properly execute the experiment and in particular to reduce the involvement of organised crime, all stages associated with the cultivation, importation, purchase and sale of marijuana should be included in the regulation and not just a decriminalization of some links in the production-consumption chain, the Council added.

The liberal-conservative government at the time shot down the proposal, but with the new centre-left government that came into power after the national elections in September 2011, proponents of the change believe that a majority in the current parliament could support decriminalisation this time around, and the Copenhagen City Council decided to take up their proposal to regulate the city’s cannabis market again.

However, regulating the supply of cannabis to government controlled dispensaries will run into difficulties with Denmark’s adherence to the 1961 UN Single Convention and the 1988 UN Convention against the Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The Netherlands has been struggling with its international obligations for decades since it allowed coffeeshop to sell a limited amount of cannabis for personal use in the 1970s through the front door. While the front door was regulated, coffeeshop owners still had to buy their supplies on the black market at the back door of the shop. Over the years, cannabis supply increasingly came into the hand of criminal organizations, particularly since a crackdown on cultivation mainly targeted bonafide cultivators.

The Copenhagen City Council justifiably wants to avoid such a controversial situation. According to City mayor Warming compliance of the Copenhagen model with the UN drug conventions is a matter of interpretation. What the options for interpretation within the international drug control regime are will be the subject of a next weblog.