Pushers turn over two billion kroner a year from dealing it, Copenhagen’s politicians want to legalise it and activists have been thrown in jail defending it, but is it really so easy to end the war on weed?

The discussion of weed is as relevant as ever these days and was still a smoking hot topic back when the wise words from Peter Stanners were published in our 18th issue. 

 

Smoking weed is an absurdly normal illegal activity. According to the government health agency, 33 percent of the population have tried it while men adorned with tribal tattoos and dressed in sports wear sell it openly in one of Denmark’s most popular tourist attraction, Christiania. Despite being illegal, there’s a huge demand for the introverted and sedative drug that is can be used to treat diseases, including cancer. But concerns over possible health risks, including the fact that weed smokers are far more likely to develop schizophrenia, makes politicians wary to call for it to be legalised.

As a result, criminal gangs control a black market worth about two billion kroner a year – untaxed income that is stuffed into the pockets of puffy jackets and Adidas sweatpants and which helps fund a simmering gang war. But which is more important: protecting vulnerable users, or cutting off a lucrative income stream for criminals?
Copenhagen’s mayor, Frank Jensen, has chosen the latter. He has repeatedly tried to legalise the drug in the city with the support of most of the City Council. The government is not a fan of the idea, however, and has turned down every application he has submitted to trial a period of legalisation in the city, most recently in 2011.

 

KIDS SMOKING WEED OUTSIDE CITY HALL
Kids smoking weed outside city hall

The problem is that Jensen wants to fully legalise weed, something that no country or city has successfully achieved. The state legislature in Washington and Colorado may have legalised it, but the FBI can still swoop in and close dispensaries, as it remains illegal under federal law. And while coffee shops in Amsterdam can sell small amounts of weed, the shop owners have to buy their products illegally from smugglers. Mayor Jensen wants to avoid any ambiguity and in March held a conference to go over all the problems the city has to deal with before it can let people smoke in peace.

“We need to end a failed policy and take responsibility,” Jensen said as the conference closed. “City Hall now needs to take the lead.”

The conference identified some important questions. Is it possible to legalise weed while also not increasing the number of users? Where do you get the weed? And is it even possible to legalise weed without breaking international treaties designed to criminalise its use? Denmark, like many countries, has based its drug laws on United Nations anti-drug conventions. These conventions standardised drug policies in most western states and have been closely guarded by the United States ever since President Nixon started the catastrophically unsuccessful War on Drugs in 1971.

I have always thought that pressure from the US is why the Danish government has refused to let Jensen go ahead with his trial (Jensen and the Danish prime minister belong to the same party and it’s hard to understand why else they wouldn’t agree on this issue). Hard evidence of this pressure is hard to find, but a classified cable released by Wikileaks shows a close working relationship between the US and Denmark on drug issues.

“The [US government], specifically through its [Drug Enforcement Agency] office at the U.S. Embassy will continue to cooperate and share appropriate information with Danish counter-narcotic authorities and build upon the already strong bilateral program,” former US ambassador to Denmark, Laurie Fulton, wrote in the 2009.

Even if Denmark decided to end its tradition of blindly following the US into war, legalising weed isn’t straightforward because there’s no obvious supplier.

ALBERT PORTRAIT
Portrait of Albert Hatchwell Nielsen

Albert Hatchwell Nielsen sold weed in Christiania for 16 years. He’s been out of the game for nine years and now runs the skate brand Alis. He supports the city’s plan to legalise weed but identified a few problems.

“It would be great to take the money away from the gangs because they’ve got such bad karma,” Albert said. “But I’m sure they’ll just find their money another way.”

He added that while weed has always been big business, the government is maybe wrong to say that the gangs have such a large share of the market.

“Gangs can’t only be responsible for the two billion kroner. It’s a lot of money and no one has been caught with nearly enough yet. If it were true, they would be flying around in helicopters but instead they’re walking around with 10,000 kroner in their pockets. The real gangsters are elsewhere. The government likes to think this country is secure but these trades are huge. We’re not talking about one bag coming through customs, it’s container after container after container. You can’t supply the market with briefcases.”

CANNABIS CONFERENCE
Cannabis Conference

Albert said he didn’t know who was really behind the black market, but that the best way to cut out the middlemen would be to legalise weed and let people grow it themselves. Not all variants of weed can be easily cultivated in Denmark. Hash, condensed weed resin, is popular but requires special cultivation techniques and would probably have to continue being sourced from the Middle East.

“Connoisseurs will still want their specially imported products and how’s the city going to get hold of it? By flying to Morocco? They need a global legalisation first.”

This is an important point as Albert argues that the government needs to sell a competitive range of products at competitive prices if they want to successfully beat the criminals at their own game. Speaking to me at the weed conference, sociology professor and weed culture expert, Willy Pedersen, agreed with Albert on this point. He argued, however, that the state should have the monopoly on both the manufacture and sale of weed in order limit how many people smoke it, which is important given the link between mental health problems and weed smoking.

But while some studies have found that the rate of schizophrenia is six times higher among weed smokers than non-smokers, the link is not properly understood.

“People with mental illness do tend to use a lot of cannabis and people who use a lot of cannabis seem to develop the illness more than those who don’t,” Cannabis Law Reform (CLEAR) state on their website, adding that people with mental illness use more drugs and alcohol than the general population.

So are people who are vulnerable to mental illness more likely to smoke weed? Or does smoking weed make you more likely to develop mental illness? It’s not settled.

While many practical questions have yet to be answered before weed is legalised, we might not even be discussing them if it weren’t for the work of activists who have been trying to change Denmark’s attitude to weed.

 

cutter holding a bag of weed on a plane
Cutter holding a bag of weed on a plane

 

Among them is Khodr ‘Cutter’ Mehri. With over 16,000 followers on Facebook, he brazenly flaunts his weed smoking exploits, whether it’s telling TV2 News that he sells cannabis and doesn’t care that the police knows, or publishing a photograph of him smuggling a bag of weed on an airplane.

“I’ve always fought for what I think is fair, for being able to smoke weed and have the right to make my own choices,” Cutter said. “But when I moved back from Kuwait, where there is a lot of social control, I thought I would be able to kick back and do what I wanted. But then I realised there was a witch-hunt against weed smokers. That pissed me off.”

Cutter’s activism started in 2011 when he openly started selling cannabis online. He sold across Europe for around three months before the tax authority pulled the plug on his business. He is now facing charges for around 30 undelivered parcels containing cannabis that were intercepted by the police.

These charges didn’t deter him and last year he established Smokenhagen, an Amsterdam-style coffee shop in the heart of the city. In the basement was a social room where users, mostly young men, played backgammon and socialised. Upstairs there was a café and a store where he sold merchandise.

Cutter expected Smokenhagen to get shut down after a few weeks and said he was relieved when it eventually shut after nine months following persistent pressure by the police on his landlords to chuck him out. Last summer he attended an open meeting about legalising weed that was organised by the justice minister. As it drew to a close, he stood, lit a joint, protested that weed was illegal before sauntering to the exit of the parliament building smoking all the while.

He ended up getting away with it. But he hasn’t always been so lucky and this winter he spent 23 days in prison after amassing a string of possession charges. These setbacks have only reinforced his determination, however, and he has now moved on to the next phase of his activism with Propaganja, a political pressure group he established to try and influence the weed debate.

cutter debating on television
Cutter debating on Danish television

While he remains a prominent voice in the legalisation debate, Cutter is only one of the city’s prominent cannabis activists. Mayor Frank Jensen, deputy mayor for social affairs Mikkel Warming, and the Hemp Party led by Klaus Trier Tuxen, have all played important roles fighting for the decriminalisation of weed.

And the tide may be turning. A recent poll carried out by Rambøll for Jyllands-Posten in May showed that 52 percent of Danes support legalising cannabis. Maybe it’s because the facts no longer seem to add up. Criminalising weed hasn’t stopped it becoming a common and relatively harmless, drug of choice. After all, tobacco and alcohol are major killers but at least we tax them to pay for welfare.

There are many reasons to support legalising weed. But to Cutter, it’s simply a question of liberty.

“Cannabis might not be for everyone but it should be up to the individual to decide how they treat their body,” he said. “If it were legal, people could more easily get help and it would also eliminate a lot of crime.

“I can’t see what the problem is.”