Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city wants to wrest the soft drugs trade away from criminal gangs, but the national government may not let it proceed.
The city of Copenhagen wants to legalize cannabis and, if possible, get supplies of the drug from the United States. Following a Europe-wide trend, Denmark’s capital has been planning a three-year experiment that would aim to wrest the city’s soft drugs trade away from criminal gangs and place it under direct municipal control. But while city officials overwhelmingly support the move, the Danish national government may not let them proceed.
Last year the national government rejected more tentative plans that Copenhagen city councillors had approved by 39 votes to 9. So it's no coincidence that representatives from Seattle were flown in to the city for a conference last week, invited to help craft a policy that stands a better chance of surviving resistance from non-metropolitan Danish and neighboring Swedish mayors. The move reveals two longstanding fault lines: one between the progressive city and its more conservative hinterland, and another between those who see the drug trade as a distant metropolitan phenomenon and those who have to live with it on their doorstep.
The distinctively Scandinavian legalization scheme Copenhagen is working towards could be influential worldwide. One issue is key: No one wants the "Copenhagen model" to turn the city into a Little Amsterdam, a place aping long-standing Dutch laws where tourists flock to get baked in commercially run "coffee shops." Copenhagen, by contrast, would prefer to keep cannabis sales under state monopoly, fixing prices and importing supplies themselves, possibly from U.S. states Colorado or Washington, which have recently legalized marijuana (though Washington is already chary about this). To prevent drug tourism, only Danish passport holders over 18 would be allowed to buy, while outlets might also restrict sales further by demanding proof of Copenhagen residency.
If the idea of a state-sponsored weed peddler sounds bizarre, it’s not entirely without Nordic precedents. Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland all sell strong alcohol for home consumption exclusively through a public monopoly of state-owned liquor chains, while Sweden was experimenting with state-controlled bars as early as 1860. Copenhagen already has a successful, loosely related project offering free heroin for addicts that is credited with cutting deaths, reducing public nuisance and getting some users clean.
What the plans have little to do with is a breezily tolerant attitude. Following past counterproductive attempts to crack down on drug gangs, the city’s prime objective is to starve criminals out of the market. Back in 2004 when police raided drug dealers in the city’s Freetown Christiania, a once squatted alternative district housed in a former barracks, the drug trade actually proliferated and spread, resulting in a bloody gangland shooting the following year. It’s crimes like these that have kick-started the city’s push for legalization, rather than a belief in the public’s right to get stoned. In this small, wealthy and largely calm country, violence and sleaze have never been accepted as the inevitable backdrop to urban life, and with even Freetown Christiania being brought to heel this year, Copenhagen’s legalization plans fit into a wider pattern of tighter state control.
Copenhagen is no island, however. Around 35 percent of the 5 1/2 million strong Danish population live in its metropolitan area, so while it’s economically and culturally dominant, the city doesn’t quite have the casting vote in national politics. Mayors in suburban districts outside the city’s official limits are wary of legalization, as are Swedish authorities, fearing a tide of drugs flowing the short distance across the Øresund Bridge. This is understandable, as the new bridge has bound the two countries so closely that Copenhagen and the Swedish city of Malmö are increasingly being considered as a single metropolitan area. It’s also somewhat myopic – Copenhagen already fills at weekends with leery Swedes chasing Denmark’s cheaper booze and easier-to-buy cannabis as it is. In creating a heavily regulated scheme that draws on the Scandinavian temperance tradition, Copenhagen is trying to sidestep these concerns. Failure to get the plan pushed through will only highlight the sense of disconnect between the city and its region.