For decades, the self-governed enclave called Christiania located in central Copenhagen allowed weed and hash sellers to operate freely in a designated area, but the residents decided to stop this practice after the latest shooting incident.
As Europe is moving closer to decriminalizing marijuana, it’s easy to forget some of the pioneering efforts that made current discussion about this topic possible. One of the most important initiatives of this kind took place in Denmark, where in the early 1970s a group of hippies took over a former army base and transformed it into an island of non-conformity.
Named Freetown Christiania, this small community nesting in the heart of downtown Copenhagen was mostly tolerated by the official authorities, despite the fact that residents consider themselves to be independent from the rest of the country.
A social experiment
From the very beginning, this was a social experiment based on an inclusive and non-violent philosophy that emanated from the hippy movement. However, Christiania took an interesting position on psychotropic drugs, openly supporting marijuana use while condemning hard drugs in very strong terms.
This attitude was clearly reflected in the daily life of the commune, with cannabis vendors getting a prominent place in the so called ‘Pusher Street’, while heroin users and dealers were not welcomed. Since the community didn’t accept the formal authority of the Danish law enforcement agencies, the locals took it upon themselves to ensure those rules were respected.
In practice, this meant Christiania was one of the rare places where marijuana was sold publically on stands lined up on the street. The word got around, and for decades smokers of all nationalities could drop by and pick up a few joints without fear of getting scammed or arrested. Very soon, the commune became the center of the marijuana trade in Copenhagen, attracting a crowd that didn’t share the peace-loving ideals of the founders.
With a steady stream of tourists flocking in to buy weed and pumping a lot of cash into the micro-economy of Christiania, organized crime moved in to claim control of the trade. Over the years, violent incidents occurred multiple times as different groups jostled for primacy, but the area mostly remained safe and visitor-friendly, serving as a nightlife spot where smell of cannabis permeated the air at all times.
Cannabis is still illegal in Denmark
Interestingly enough, the police never bothered to stomp out this oasis of semi-legal weed. There have been occasional raids on dealers (marijuana is still illegal in Denmark) and at times conservative-leaning governments applied some political pressure on the enclave with intention to return the area to normalcy.
However, the residents have been vocal in the defense of their creation and successfully avoided all attempts to evict them or force them to change their fundamental rules. The cannabis stalls were often a point of contention in those discussions, overshadowing more profound values that Christianites believed in and practiced.
The pressure wasn’t without consequences, and modern-day Christiania is little more than a shadow of its glorious past. While it remains fiercely independent and devoted to the same set of principles that led to its creation, Christiania lost much of its unique spirit and doesn’t have a clear role in the changing society, other than perhaps as a tourist destination.
Due to limited size and rigid attitudes of the residents, it became exceedingly hard for young people to join the commune, and that inevitably led to the loss of touch with the times. External threats also caused the residents to develop a defensive mentality and resist integration into the wider society, which may have rendered the initiative more relevant and accessible to the new generation.
Dangerous criminals exploiting Christiania
Instead, Christiania was struggling to deal with the consequences of its insistence on hosting an open-air marijuana market. The founders were helpless to prevent the Pusher Street from falling into hands of dangerous criminals who didn’t care about anything but profits, which naturally caused the police to get more involved.
When the situation finally boiled over with a shootout that left a policeman dead and a tourist badly wounded, Christianites did the unthinkable and voluntarily banned marijuana sales on their ‘territory’. The decision ended a bold and defiant experiment 35 years after it first started, admitting defeat in the face of mounting evidence that it can’t work in the current political climate.
Anyone who visited this place understands why losing Pusher Street forever is a terrible thing. Christiania was a place unlike any other in the world and it represented a dream of a different society, with cannabis stands serving as a symbol of its non-conformist nature.
Many experimental communes were started in the afterglow of the hippie movement, yet none of them survived into the 21st century in its original form except this one. It was a completely unique case where the Danish society gradually accepted a quirky minority and maintained relatively friendly relations with a bunch of social revolutionaries who denied the power of the central government.
Many Danes who don’t smoke marijuana take pride in existence of this cultural glitch, seeing Christiania as proof that Danish people are a free-thinking crowd that respects basic human liberties, and will often take out-of-town guests to see it.
Gangs abused its tourist attraction status
Indeed, it was very common to see Christiania crowded with locals and tourists looking for good time, with a vast majority of visitors oblivious to the deeper purpose of the settlement. The fact that you could walk from central Copenhagen to this area in 15 minutes certainly helped to turn Christiania into a popular nightlife hub, although it also may have contributed to unwanted attention from gangs and authorities, ultimately distracting from its original mission.
Of course, the commune isn’t going anywhere – for now. However, its identity and sustainable economy have taken a huge hit, and it remains to be seen whether it will ever fully recover. Even if its best days are behind it, Christiania will remain a source of inspiration to social activists and alternative-seeking politicians everywhere in the world for decades to come.
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