83 Jailed in Denmark's Biggest Ever Drugs Bust

A painting of a police raid on a wall in Christiania, Denmark
A painting of a police raid covers a wall in the Christiania district in Copenhagen. REUTERS/Bob Strong

83 people have been imprisoned for taking part in an organised drug trade in the Christiania commune in Copenhagen, following what some have described as the biggest drugs bust in Denmark's history.

76 people were convicted of drug dealing during five hearings which were carried out on consecutive days this week. Seven people were also handed prison sentences in an earlier hearing in January as part of the same investigation, dubbed 'Operation Pusherstreet' by the police.

The sentences total 220 years of prison time, with the longest one lasting five and a half years, and the shortest six months.

The charges relate to the sale of hash and cannabis, within the boundaries of Christiania, a neighbourhood in Denmark's capital Copenhagen that has informally self-governed itself since its founding in 1971.

A huge police raid in the commune and surrounding areas in March last year led to the arrest of more than 80 people and the confiscation of huge amounts of cannabis - Danish police say more than two tonnes were confiscated in 2014 alone. Those arrested were kept in jail as they awaited their court dates according to the Danish news website The Local.

The sale of cannabis within the boundaries of Christiania has long been an established part of its economy and culture. While the sale of cannabis is against the law in Denmark, and Christiania is officially under the jurisdiction of Danish law, there has long been an informal understanding between the authorities and the community in Christiania.

"It's always been illegal but a former minister of justice circulated a letter to the police instructing them to only give warnings for possession for individual use, amounts of less than 10 grams," explains Professor Kim Møller, an associate professor of criminology at Aalborg University.

Møller says that in 2004 the police started to crack down on the sale and possession of cannabis within the commune. Following a number of raids and arrests, the sale of the drugs continued as before, until a large scale crackdown in March 2014 which has led to the convictions this week.

Christiania is called a "freetown" by its residents, and it was established on the site of a disused military base in 1971 by squatters who turned it into an urban commune, with the objective of becoming a self-governing society. Stalls selling cannabis products were established on the aptly named "Pusherstreet", with locals and outsiders free to purchase and use the products in public.

Møller says these convictions will probably not spell the end for Christiania's cannabis trade. "[The police operation] has been going on very intensively for three or four years, with police putting out a designated task force and carrying out large confiscations of drugs and money over the course of several years, and they haven't managed to close it down. It's improbable they will close it per se."

He warns that one result of the crackdown could be that more serious criminal elements could establish themselves in Christiania, as the drugs trade gets driven underground.

"This is a logical extension of stepping up of enforcement and arresting dealers, this sends a clear signal that the law is being enforced," says Møller. "Those now dealing drugs do so under higher risks of sanctions - it's going to be more risky meaning more hardcore criminals will participate."

In the past there have been violent incidents between drug dealers and the police with reports of rocks and firecrackers being thrown, and the Copenhagen Post reported last year that dealers in Christiania were even using drones to keep tabs on the police when they entered Christiania.

This is something that worries the residents, according to Hulda Nader, a member of the board of the Christiania foundation, which bought the land from the state.

"Every time they do that [a crack down], it gets more brutalised and you get more hard people coming in. It becomes more criminalised because they start hiding from the police. People are getting out of it if they're too soft, they don't want to get [arrested], so in the end it's going to get very bad if they don't legalize it."

She also warns that driving the market behind closed doors could cause hard drugs - which Christiania doesn't tolerate - to become more of an issue.

"We are taking action against that all the time, but if in the end the police manage to totally destroy the open market we don't know," she says.

Nader says that 35 to 40 of those convicted in the Pusherstreet case are residents of Christiania.

A number of those convicted said they would be launching appeals, while others said they would consider appealing.