August 27, 2006

Hippie town under pressure in Copenhagen

By Rasmus Nord Jorgensen

COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - "Do you want hash?" the young man
asks passers-by on Pusher Street, once a thriving open-air
drugs market in the heart of Christiania and now an example of
how times are changing in this famous Danish "free town."

For decades, Christiania clung to the principles of its
hippie founders, who started the settlement as a squat in a
disused barracks in Copenhagen in 1971. It grew into a tourist
hotspot, largely thanks to an easy trade in soft drugs.

The waterfront district feels like an oasis: rose bushes
and wild hedges twist between the haphazardly built houses,
workshops, cafes and workmen's huts. People sip beer or smoke
joints on benches, while dogs sunbathe on the worn

The community, which does not recognize Danish law, governs
itself by consensus on everything from finances to disputes
between neighbors. Despite drugs being illegal, marijuana was
for decades sold openly at stalls lining Pusher Street.

However, that has changed since police started a wave of
raids two years ago and now the stalls are gone.

"There is only a small group of dealers left, but it is the
toughest and most hard-bitten who remain," said long-time
Christiania resident and documentary film-maker Nils Vest.

More fundamental changes are now being mooted for an area
that comprises prime real estate in one of the world's most
expensive cities.

The center-right coalition government wants to construct
new buildings, remove houses from the old ramparts, restore
historic buildings and introduce normal ownership rules in the
area, requiring residents to pay rent.

"Our goal ... is to transform Christiania so it becomes
part of the Danish society and conforms to the rules and
regulations of the rest of the society," said Christian
Wedell-Neergaard, a member of the Conservative party which is
in the coalition.

In the true spirit of the "free town," Christiania's around
800 residents are discussing the plans with the government.

"There are still problematic and unconditional things which
we have to deal with but there are also positive things, and we
are optimistic," said lawyer Knud Folschack, chief negotiator
for Christiania's residents.


Built some 300 years ago to strengthen Copenhagen's
defenses during a period of constant warring with nearby
Sweden, Christiania covers some 35 hectares (86.5 acres)
between a moat and a sea inlet.

After a small group of hippies first occupied it in the
1970s, they were joined by hundreds more and pledged to build a
new society of tolerance, democracy and environmental

The Danish state, with a tradition of tolerance and a
strong distaste for confrontation, never forcibly evicted them.

It's a "true anarchistic village democracy where every
resident can take part in the decision-making," says Vest.

"There are no cars, except for the garbage truck, I know
all my neighbors, there is no vandalism and hardly any

It hasn't always been so idyllic in the "free town" whose
residents include middle class citizens, welfare recipients,
drugs users and criminals, according to a government report.

The community was invaded in the late 1970s by hard drugs
dealers controlled by violent motorcycle gangs but in 1980 it
fought back, throwing the dealers out and offering junkies
withdrawal treatment.

In 2004, the Danish parliament finally ordered an end to 30
years of open marijuana trade. Scores of riot police entered
Christiania to enforce the ban, which was initially violated

Now, the force patrolling the area has been reduce to 13
officers. Police say the operation has been hugely successful.

"Dealers came from Sweden, Norway and Finland to buy
cannabis in large quantities, because it was cheaper here and
the chance of getting caught doing the deal was very small,"
said narcotics police chief Steffen Steffensen.

Critics say the trade spilled into the rest of Denmark's
capital, where it is ungoverned. Since Pusher Street was closed
down, there has been an increase in gang violence in

"In Christiania there were certain unwritten rules. They
didn't sell to the very young, they didn't accept stolen goods
as payment, they didn't sell hard drugs like heroin, and that
has been exchanged for an unknown situation," said drug
researcher Michael Jourdan.

It is this spirit of uniqueness and self-sufficiency that
residents want to preserve as they go head-to-head with the
government over its plans to change Christiania, where until
now residents only paid a kind of community tax for services
like electricity and water.

Lawyer Folschack says a foundation will be set up to
administer housing and business properties under the new rules,
but that details still have to be worked out - through
consensus of course.

"In my opinion, Christiania will remain as a social and
housing experiment," he said.