Pusherstreet isn’t what it used to be. The leading source of retail cannabis in all of Denmark, in one of the largest and oldest anarchic enclaves in all of Europe, is no longer the bustling, friendly spice bazaar of years gone by. There’s a raw, on-the-hunt, bracing vibe here now. Young, shaven-head toughs in drab garb gather around fires in metal barrels, surreptitiously directing the illicit traffic. Mutts wander unleashed, some trained to whisk contraband away in the event of a raid by the politi (police).
Looking out of place in my loafers and sport coat, I step under a crudely rigged tarp canopy and into a makeshift hash stand where wares are displayed on a tree trunk and a wooden barrel, to query the chaps there about the changes the place has undergone. After a couple of minutes, the pusher in chief, who wears a black sweater pulled up over his mouth to hide his identity, grows weary of my questions. “Leave!” he yells with a rasp and shoves me away.
There was a time when hash and skunk were sold here from 40 stalls in an open-air market staffed by knowledgeable hepcats. But that was prior to January 2004, when Copenhagen’s politi, who for years were unofficially indifferent to the trade, finally showed up in huge force to bust it up once and for all. Dozens of local dealers were jailed, soon to be replaced by rival Turkish, Palestinian, and Balkan gangs, among others.
Pusherstreet, originally named to be absolutely upfront and unambiguous about what goes on there, is the commercial heart of the Freetown of Christiania, a scruffy micronation in the Danish capital’s upscale, canal-incised Christianhavn district. This notorious community of utopian rebels, who expropriated the 85-acre former army barracks in 1971, has much more to deal with these days than a crimp in its marijuana business. Christiania is facing both an existential and a property rights crisis, with an aging population of ’60s counterculturalists battling a less tolerant and increasingly antagonistic national government that sees great untapped value in the commune’s waterfront land. The two sides are now facing off in one of the nation’s most momentous court cases.
On September 26, 1971, Jacob Ludvigsen, a young editor at the underground weekly Hovedbladet (Head), raised a guerrilla army of six fellow travelers and invaded a recently abandoned army installation for a photo shoot. In the next weekend’s edition, he proclaimed that the garrison had been overrun and summoned one and all to “emigrate with bus number 8.”
Denmark at the time was between weak Social Democratic governments, and the hippie incursion went largely ignored for several weeks. Ludvigsen declared the walled-off property the “land of the settlers.” The new haven—named Christiania, after the bohemian, pre-1924 Oslo—was soon populated by squatters, ’68ers, artists, theater people, and DIY activists. Their mission statement, co-authored by Ludvigsen, called for a self-governing, self-sustaining community where the individual takes care of the collective.
Ludvigsen didn’t stick around long enough to realize the dream, splitting the scene in early 1972 after being put off by the general lawlessness of the place, the pilfering of the barracks’ plumbing fixtures and the like. Invoking Bob Dylan’s admonition, “To live outside the law, you must be honest,” Ludvigsen tells me today that the requisite honor among thieves wasn’t there yet when he left. (Ludvigsen now lives on Bornholm, an island in the Baltic Sea that he playfully agitates to “liberate” from Danish “colonial” rule.)
Yet enough order managed to congeal that first year for the settlers to negotiate a temporary agreement with Denmark’s Ministry of Defense by which the squatters could continue as a “social experiment,” paying for water, utilities, and upkeep costs. Those who dug in were can-do crafts folk inspired, in part, by the Whole Earth Catalog, the latter-day homesteading manual. A system of self-governance was cobbled together in which most important decisions were made by consensus reached at common meetings held in Den Gra Hal (the Gray Hall), a structure once used for military drills.
Nearly four decades later, issues of tenancy, building maintenance, dispute resolution, and collections for the common purse continue to be handled in monthly meetings for each of the Freetown’s 15 designated areas. There is no real estate market, speculative or otherwise. Change of residence is transaction-free; the right to occupy a given residence is decided by vote.
There are a few prohibitions within Christiania’s confines: no violence, theft, weapons, cars, rocker (biker gang) badges, or hard drugs (everything but cannabis). Enforcement is incumbent on both the individual and the collective; no outside authority is recognized. In the 1980s, following some violent incidents, including a murder, urgent common meetings were called to unite on a policy to expel the Hell’s Angels and later a gang named Bullshit. Bikers were thenceforth banned from the premises and, obligingly, haven’t returned without invitation and without leaving their logo-stitched vests behind. After the overdose deaths of 10 addicts in the late ’70s, the community mobilized to bodily remove heroin users and dealers in the momentous Junk Blockade of 1979–80, successfully prohibiting all drugs but pot and hash ever since; the ban is enforced by the cannabis merchants.
To confront offenders, phone chains are employed to marshal an instant volunteer civil guard, like the waves of unarmed Amish in the film Witness. Knowing that males are more likely to do battle with fellow men, Christiania’s women band together by the dozen in crises to relieve young demonstrators of projectile rocks and bottles.
The 1972 pact with the Defense Ministry, which called for a competition to decide long-term plans for the property, was short-lived. The following year, a new national government came to power, and the Folketing (Parliament) gave Christianites a deadline of April 1, 1976, to vacate the area. When that day dawned sans tanks or troops, the Freetown erupted in an uproarious April Fool’s Day celebration involving some 30,000 revelers. Feeling their oats, the Christianites then sued the state for breach of promise over its failure to hold the promised competition, but the Højesteret (Supreme Court) ultimately ruled against the action in 1978. Through many such cycles of tightening and loosening state pressure, the Freetown has continued to stand defiant.
Today, Christiania is Denmark’s second biggest tourist attraction after Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. The Freetown has become a lucrative brand: Merchants outside the enclave pay royalties to Christiania for the use of its flag (three yellow dots on a red field) on T-shirts and other gear.
Critics of the squat dismiss Christianites as freeloaders, but that isn’t really accurate. No, they don’t pay “rent” per se, as Kristian Lyk-Jensen of the Danish Finance Ministry’s Palaces and Properties Agency repeatedly stresses when I interview him, but they do pay a monthly user fee to the state, upkeep expenses, utilities, municipal taxes, and fees for some social services normally covered by the city. They’ve invested their own funds in the maintenance of the grounds, reconstruction of buildings, and modernization of the sewage system, adding value to the expropriated property.
With music halls and clubs that host such world-class performers as Bob Dylan and Metallica, plus art galleries, a women’s ironworks, a high-class restaurant and bakery, and a bicycle factory, Christianites also have contributed tangible value to Denmark’s culture and commerce. They sponsor a free health clinic staffed by resident doctors, and an annual Christmas dinner for hundreds of the city’s less fortunate. By sheltering and tending to drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless Greenlanders, and unemployable madmen, they save the state millions of kroner in social welfare payments annually.