The anarchist community of Freetown Christiania has thrived in Denmark—notoriously—since the 1970s. But its infamous Green Light District is under siege.
If you’ve ever lived in or visited New York City, you probably can’t imagine that a major city could be as neat and orderly as Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. No one jaywalks or jumps a subway turnstile; every road has a bike lane running next to it; and homelessness is only for those who refuse to give up alcohol and seek treatment. But in this seemingly law-abiding city, a completely illegal open-air market still sells hash blocks and pre-rolls as if they were tourist postcards and souvenir T-shirts.
It’s called the Green Light District, and although it’s existed as a “social experiment” since 1971, the government has been trying harder than ever to shut it down. But the fearless dealers of the district—or “Pusher Street,” as it’s known on the maps—have matched police tactics at every step. Even under siege, the black-market commerce here is brisker than ever.
The Green Light District is only a small part of Freetown Christiania, the autonomous, quasi-anarchist community that was founded in an old barracks and military factory in Christianshavn, an island neighborhood of Copenhagen. Christiana covers some 85 acres, but only 200 people live here, while another 200 come and go to do business every day.
On Pusher Street, located on Christiana’s main drag, the dealers set up shop in little wooden stalls to sell space cakes (the European term for hash-infused edibles), as well as Moroccan hash, weed, BHO, and pre-rolled joints of hash or weed mixed with tobacco.
When you pass through the main entrance, you become part of an eclectic marketplace. You see dreadlocks, blond Danes, all sorts of tourists and a whole lot of people trying to remain anonymous, skulking around with their heads down, wearing hoodies. Beautiful and badass graffiti covers every building. But signs warn you never to take pictures of anything going down here. It feels like a post-apocalyptic, underground bazaar.
A massive wall of camouflage netting is stretched between two buildings. Beneath it are the huts where weed is sold. A detail of very sketchy-looking twentysomethings stand guard, waiting to sound the alarm if the cops come.
Camo netting is also used to shield the huts. It’s decorated with Christmas lights and photos of Bob Marley, but every decoration has an important function. The camo allows you to see only the dealers’ gloved hands; even if you peer through the netting, their faces are obscured by aviator shades and balaclavas. One “shop” even has a mirror perfectly set up so that, from a distance, it looks like the customer is the one behind the counter.
Wandering around, I stopped to ask one of the dealers for info about his situation. After speaking for a few minutes through a gap in the camo netting, David invited me into the hut to continue talking. He warned me that it’s not good to stand too long in Pusher Street, or else the cops will assume you’re a criminal, too.
The possession of hash or cannabis will earn you a fine in Copenhagen, but dealing carries jail time. David and his colleague Casper told me that everyone was on edge because 30 people had been arrested not three days before.
Elsewhere in Copenhagen, smell-proof bags are a must.
Given the presence of an illegal market that pulls in over $170 million a year, the cops were bound to take interest. The Copenhagen police even have a specialized Pusher Street unit—and they’re not messing around. In the past, the cops would roll in and raid huts on the spot, but now their tactics are more covert. In the early morning, they sneak in when dealers can’t find cover among the hordes of tourists. They dress in ghillie suits (camo clothing that resembles heavy foliage) and track individual “pushers” with telescopic lenses, tailing them and recording how many sales they make daily. Then they come and arrest the dealers in their homes and fine them millions in kroner, the local currency.
In the middle of our conversation, a 40-ish guy who seemed like a Pusher Street bigwig rushed in with urgent news, since everyone huddled around him to listen. I puffed on the pre-roll they gave me and stood back to allow them some privacy, even though I don’t speak a lick of Danish. After a few minutes, David shared the news with me: Someone had just gotten popped with 150 kilos of hash and another 30 of flower.
They asked me what the scene in America was like. I gave them a quick description of what was going on in our pot-legal states.
We talked a few minutes longer and, before I left, Casper hooked me up with some nice hash—the smoke of choice in Europe, discreet and easy to smuggle. Thousands prefer blending it with tobacco to create a flavorful blend that’s smoked everywhere from Spain to India.
Hash can be found in abundance here, but the flowers are nothing to sneeze at either. They’re mostly imported from the Netherlands, like the Pineapple Express and OG Kush I tried the first day. But some of these buds are actually grown in Denmark. At one stand, a vendor allowed me to sniff his bags. One specimen absolutely smacked me in the face—when I asked what it was, the vendor replied appreciatively, “You, sir, have a good nose!”
He told me it was Jack Herer, bred here in Denmark, and that the flowers were a product of the original cut. Hands down, it was some of the best weed I’ve ever smoked. The other native weed must have been pretty heavy on the CBD, with some seeds mixed in. After sampling the rest, I happily stuck with the Jack Herer.
The edibles turned out to be surprisingly powerful. Although I was skeptical at first, a single bite of a space cake was enough to make my mouth tingle and my legs wobble. Then I left Pusher Street and went on an official tour of “The Town.” A veteran resident of Christiania named Pia was my guide, and she explained the community’s colorful history.
Pick up a grinder for use in-country, and ditch it before traveling home.
Before 1971, the surrounding neighborhood was basically a slum. After the military officially abandoned its factory, local residents ripped down the fence around the barracks and turned it into a makeshift children’s playground. According to Pia, Denmark was concerned about the possibility of a third world war (this was back in the days of superpower tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States), so the country decided to isolate itself and shut down the military installation.
But that’s Pia’s take on the local history. As elsewhere during the ’70s, Denmark was also undergoing a youth revolution, much like the hippie movement in the US. Young people began squatting in the barracks and turned the space into a commune. The commune’s original mission statement hasn’t changed since its founding: “The objective of Christiania is to create a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible for the well-being of the entire community. Our society is to be economically self-sustaining and, as such, our aspiration is to be steadfast in our conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted.”
The Danish Ministry of Defense, which still owned the land, granted the commune “usage rights” from 1973 through ’76, which would allow the ministry enough time to determine how the land would ultimately be used. But the residents of Christiania weren’t going anywhere. When the agreement expired, the Defense Ministry extended the provision until 1978. At that point, Denmark’s Supreme Court ruled that the area should be cleared immediately. However, the Danish Parliament decided that the Freetown could continue its existence under special conditions, because a city plan was needed for the entire district.
In 1989, the Parliament passed the Christiania Law, allowing the Freetown to continue as the only sustainably developed area in Copenhagen. Although the law prohibited further construction, the residents continued to do as they pleased, and the Christiania Law was never really put into effect. Instead, the Defense Ministry drew up a new agreement directly with the residents—an agreement that was periodically renewed until 2004. The ministry planned to demolish a large portion of Christiana’s old factories, but these buildings were—and remain—the homes and businesses of the people living there, however unconventionally. Peaceful negotiations convinced the ministry to demolish only a handful of structures that were in an irreparable state of decay.
Christiania society rolled on, but its freewheeling nature did create some problems. Heroin addicts became somewhat ubiquitous in the 1980s. And while ganja sales could be made peacefully, biker gangs controlled the hash market. A few violent incidents led to the death of gang members as well as some innocent bystanders.
As a result, Christiana’s residents created a set of rules to help keep the peace: no weapons, no hard drugs, no violence, no private cars, no bikers’ colors, no bulletproof vests, no sale of fireworks, no use of thunderflashes and no stolen goods. The bikers eventually withdrew, but getting rid of the heroin was a harder problem. When the residents tried to give the police a list of smack dealers, the cops came and arrested hash dealers instead, in an attempt to destabilize the community. So the citizens of Christiania took matters into their own hands: They set upon the heroin dealers, ripped off their clothes, threw them into the street, and called the police to complain that naked people were running through town. All of the dealers arrested were charged with public nudity.
Despite having eliminated the violence and hard drugs, The Town discovered that the presence of a few peaceful, weed-smoking hippies still made many Danes angry. Copenhagen was expanding and had gained a reputation as one of the world’s most advanced cities. But a quasi-anarchist commune continued to exist right in its midst. Wealthy developers wanted to transform the area into a mixed-use zone comprising Christianites and newcomers who would reside in expensive condo buildings. The developers pressured the government to sign over the land, and the government passed a law that rendered Christiania illegal. Daily eviction notices and raids by police led to bitter protests. The land, and the essence of Freetown, was under siege.
Pia recalls it as Christiania’s darkest time. I had to reassure myself that the story had a happy ending—even though I was standing right in the middle of the Freetown with friendly Pia by my side. (I must have been pretty high.) The struggle continued, she told me, with the hash market, in particular, coming under heavy pressure. The cops conducted frequent raids and made multiple arrests—but the price of hash never went up, and the dealers continued to sell openly in their wooden stalls.
In 2011, Christiania finally got its big break. The community collaborated with a legal firm and the Ministry of Defense to create a fund that purchased approximately 80 percent of the land. It borrowed 89 million kroner (more than $13.5 million) and is slowly paying back the loan month by month. The residents and businesses of Christiania pay most of it, but you can also purchase a “share,” although it isn’t an actual share—just a way of investing in the fund. I bought one myself, which means that High Times now owns a small (theoretical) piece of the Freetown pie. Pia told me that a dim-witted venture capitalist once invested 30,000 kroner, only to find out that the shares are merely symbolic.
Freetown Christiania will certainly continue to evolve, but the good news is that it’s here to stay. On the other hand, the Green Light District is still on shaky legs. The raids on the hash dealers of Pusher Street continue, although the illegal cannabis trade is now “tolerated” by the police, and an old “pusher hut” is on exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark, having obviously been deemed part of the Danish cultural patrimony, right alongside Viking rune stones and the Danish crown jewels.
Although the police are trying hard to discourage the dealers, I doubt they’re succeeding. Even so, an open-air bazaar that serves a multimillion-dollar black market in cannabis and hash—with much of the latter imported all the way from Africa—remains a slap in the face to the Danish and European authorities. But this much is clear: After more than 40 years of fighting to continue its improbable existence, Christiania is one of the most interesting places on Earth—and it deserves a prominent place on every stoner’s bucket list.