City trying to ‘hash out’ pot issue

Decriminalisation of cannabis has moved from public to political debate following the release of a city committee report
The Copenhagen Post (Denmark)
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A new Social Affairs Committee report on cannabis has recommended that the City Council seriously consider decriminalisation of the substance’s as being a means to curbing gang violence. The Social Liberals, Red-Green Alliance and Socialist People’s Party (SF) at City Hall have all backed the legal sale of cannabis in small quantities for personal use for some time. And in February, the committee was given the green light to review the matter when the council’s largest party, the Social Democrats, gave their support to looking into the issue.

Over the past few years the government has made a point of cracking down hard on the city’s cannabis dealing, sending waves of police and armoured vehicles into the city’s self-proclaimed autonomous area of Christiania, where much of the trade is based.

Now the Christiania ‘hash’ stands on ‘Pusher Street’ that used to openly sell various varieties of the drug to willing buyers have become ‘paraphernalia’ stands, with hash mainly being sold under the table.

Many believe the crackdown, by former Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, only pushed the hash trade out into the rest of the city, where it has been more difficult to regulate. Police admit much of the recent gang violence is directly related to the hash trade.

And within the city’s Social Affairs Committee a majority have now agreed that some loosening of the cannabis law may be necessary to curb the violence related to the drug trade.

The committee’s report suggested that decriminalising cannabis should be considered as a ‘possible alternative’ to prohibition. The committee based much of its information on data compiled by the Global Cannabis Commission Report, initiated to examine ‘more rational and effective’ approaches to cannabis control, published by UK based charitable fund the Beckley Foundation.

Yet despite a recent poll that indicated 59 percent support ‘the Amsterdam model’ of selling cannabis legally in coffee houses, the Social Democrats stop short of backing that solution.

Thor Grønlykke, the party’s social affairs spokesman, said the party would only support a model that aims to limit the number of abusers and addicts.

The Danish Cannabis Council was pleased with the committee’s recommendation, believing that the sale of cannabis should be part of a legal, regulated market. But even Jesper Vad Kristensen, the council’s president, is against the Dutch-inspired coffee shops, saying they have achieved ‘an almost mythical status’ that gives the issue the wrong kind of advertising.

The Red-Green Alliance, however, has long supported the Amsterdam model and would like to see cannabis completely decriminalised and sold as freely as cigarettes and alcohol are now.

‘It’s completely ridiculous that police use more time and energy looking for clumps of cannabis at Christiania than they do finding the people behind human trafficking,’ wrote Mikkel Warming, deputy mayor for social affairs, on the party’s website. ‘The legalisation of cannabis would get rid of a huge part of gangs’ income base.’

Kristensen agreed, adding that gang violence is ‘the predictable consequence’ of any crackdown in a black market.

‘Every time a dealer is imprisoned he leaves behind a free-floating opportunity for profit, and fighting over that profit is what we've seen a lot of these past few years,’ he said.

In its report, the committee found that laws forbidding cannabis have neither lessened its use nor minimised the crime related to its sale. It added that ‘easy access to cannabis has not been shown to lead to more users or addicts’.

Lars Dueholm, a member of the Liberal Party standing in November's local election, has noted the report’s conclusions and is one of the few members of his party to support decriminalisation.

‘For me there are two important reasons to decriminalise cannabis,’ he told Information newspaper. ‘One is the fact that we’re pouring millions, if not billions, of kroner into gang pockets because they’re the only ones selling hash when it’s illegal.’

Should Dueholm win a seat on the City Council, decriminalisation of cannabis in Copenhagen could become even closer to reality.

But Grønlykke says the Social Services Department has to come up with a specific proposal before any political action can be taken. And any move to decriminalise cannabis in Copenhagen would ultimately have to be approved by parliament, according to MP Anne Baastrup, legal spokeswoman for the Socialist People’s Party.

‘The first thing our party wants to do is to get the issue into some concrete form based on recommendations from the Social Affairs Committee as to what is dangerous or not,’ she told The Copenhagen Post. ‘There’s still along way to go on that. But no measure could be implemented without parliament’s approval.’

Baastrup added that it would be possible to implement decriminalisation in certain cities without cannabis being legal in other areas, as is the case with the Amsterdam model.

Since the government’s crackdown on hash began full force in 2003, the amount of the drug confiscated by police has dropped significantly from nearly 4,000 kilos to around 900 in 2007.

It is not clear from the data whether the drop in confiscated cannabis is due less of it being sold in the city or if tighter gang control has made it more difficult for police to seize it.