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A walk on 'Pusher Street'

Drug traffic is common in Christiana, a section of Copenhagen that has its roots in the counterculture.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published May 9, 2004

photo
[Photo: AP]
In March, a Copenhagen police officer passes a mural while he patrols the commune of Christiana during a crackdown on the open sale of hashish.

COPENHAGEN - I was 60 years and 5 months old before I saw my first sale of illegal drugs. I wasn't 15 minutes older before I had witnessed six more.

It took place this March in a section of Copenhagen that proclaims its right to be out of step: the neighborhood of Christiana.

In the early 1970s, the Danish government abandoned a military base on the eastern edge of the city. Soon, hundreds of hippies and other counterculture folks moved into the empty barracks.

In a prosperous nation with a generous social welfare system, officials largely left alone the 1,000 or so residents of what now called itself the Free State of Christiana.

Many of the exterior walls there are covered in brightly colored, cartoon-style paintings and graffiti. The commune, perhaps a half-mile wide and long, is enough of an attraction that tours are regularly conducted and artisans who live there market their handicrafts.

Signs repeatedly warn visitors that no photography is allowed, both because the residents don't like to consider themselves that different, and because many of them don't want to be photographed dealing drugs.

At least two small industries operate in abandoned military buildings:

* Bikes bearing the Christiana brand name are peddled throughout the city. The company has a Web site (www.christianiabikes.dk) eight employees and a factory outside Christiana. It sold 280 bikes last year.

Depending on which options buyers want in front of the handlebars - a simple cargo box or a fancy convertible hood to protect the toddlers - and how many gears (between three and seven), prices start at roughly $1,400 and range to more than twice that.

* A co-op rebuilds heating stoves, which often were designed to be ornamental. The originals date to the 1800s, and all of them sell for hundreds of dollars.

But it is the "free" nature of Christiana that brings in tourists and high school field trips so that, as one teacher told me, "The students can look and decide for themselves."

The focus is on drug traffic. The use and sale of cannabis - marijuana and the more potent hashish - is illegal in Denmark. But it became so frequent in Christiana that even the city-issued tourist map shows the location of "Pusher Street." Four blocks long and reaching to the neighborhood's main entrance, this is the only English-language road name on the map.

The government usually ignored the drug trade and sent in police only when the use of heroin, crack cocaine and other "hard drugs" became notable elsewhere in the city.

Things had been relatively calm in recent years, but by mid March this year, police estimated that 110 pounds of pot and hash were being sold daily, with the street sellers being supplied by rival biker gangs. A ranking police inspector quoted in the English-language press put the value of cannabis sold in Christiana in 2003 at more than $81-million. So police swept in, made more than 50 arrests and demolished the vendors' stands.

On an icy morning about a week after the raid, I walked into Christiana. The wall paintings cannot disguise the fact that this is a rundown neighborhood; the military abandoned the buildings more than 30 years ago, and materialism is not supposed to be part of the way of life there.

The narrow streets were nearly empty at that hour; only two of the vendors selling rolling papers, pipes and T-shirts with pro-cannabis slogans were open for business in their small plaza.

At the walkup window of Sunshine Bakery, I bought a cup of coffee and a big, freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, and I sat down on a large bench just across the street.

I immediately noticed the four scruffy 20-somethings standing in the vacant lot adjoining the bakery. With few pedestrians and no motor vehicles on Pusher Street, it was obvious when another fellow strolled up to one of those guys across from me - I'll call him Lot Man - and spoke a sentence or so.

Lot Man took about three steps to the nearest wall of the bakery, reached down behind a log there and picked up something he concealed in his hand. He walked back to the newcomer and seemed to shake hands, whereupon the visitor immediately left.

A couple of minutes went by before another fellow in old clothes and scraggly hair approached Lot Man, shook hands with him and also quickly departed. Back to the log went Lot Man, while his pals stood around looking as if they wanted to be considered Innocent Bystanders.

I watched several more young men press the flesh of Lot Man. By the fourth visit, he stopped trying to be secretive and picked up a tubular scale like those being sold by paraphernalia vendors not 20 yards away.

Lot Man would put something on the scale, hold it at eye level and then remove the item and put the scale down. In the words of American essayist John McPhee, Lot Man was "giving good weight" to his customers.

After shaking hands with seven visitors, Lot Man, backed by the Innocent Bystanders, went into a nearby building.

I crossed the narrow street to the window of Sunshine Bakery and said to the sole employee, "Tell me about the drugs."

"Those are not drugs," he answered rapidly, making me think I was about to get some baloney at the bakery. "It is hashish."

"Is that legal?" I asked.

"It is very controversial. . . . Statistics say most Danes have tried it. It is thought to be harmless. Then the hard drugs came, the police made raids."

He went into a brief lecture about how people in Christiana did not do crack cocaine or heroin, "like everyone in America has tried." I moved on, past a small playground and the beer garden with its numerous signs advising, "Say no to drugs."

I walked toward the exit, passing through a high wooden arch. I had noticed when I entered that carved in the arch was the name Christiana, the letters filled in with gold paint. The message to those leaving Christiana read:

"You are now entering the EU."

[Last modified May 7, 2004, 11:17:31]

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