Copenhagen cannabis

The Danish government has just rejected proposals for ‘contained legalisation’ of cannabis, designed to limit drug misuse and remove profit from the criminal market, deciding instead to step up policing. Blaine Stothard reports

CannabisOn 26 May 2014 in a joint letter from the ministers for health and justice, the Danish government rejected the proposals submitted by Københavns Kommune (Copenhagen City Council) to establish a time-limited ‘controlled legalisation’ of cannabis in the city. The ministers’ decision repeated previous reasons in response to similar past proposals. KK’s re-submitted proposals followed wide discussion and debate, political and public, in the city, and majority support for the proposals in the city council formed after the November 2013 local elections.

The proposals acknowledged the negative health effects that the use of cannabis can have. The council’s letter to the ministers, dated 19 March 2014, challenged the view that controlled legalisation would lead to greater availability and use of cannabis – one of the principal reasons for the government’s rejection of earlier proposals. The letter emphasised that the current situation, with an easily accessible illegal drugs market controlled by criminal organisations, does not work in a preventive way and involves many young people, often marginalised, in the criminal activities of importing, trading and selling cannabis. The council asserted that evidence suggests that implementation of the proposals could result in a containment of the use and misuse of cannabis, and remove profit from the criminal market.

The proposals included that:

•            The cultivation of cannabis become a legal activity based in Denmark.

•            Designated retail outlets be established across the city, similar to alcohol outlets in Norway and Sweden.

•            These outlets include staff able to give advice to potential purchasers and existing users who may be experiencing problems associated with their cannabis use.

•            The council extend parallel prevention campaigns and activities.

•            Assessment and evaluation of the impact of the scheme be undertaken, with a view to assessing whether the scheme should become permanent.

The ministers’ response rejected the proposals and the rationale. The principal reason, once again, was that the use of cannabis is associated with a range of negative health effects. This argument is part of a wider governmental view that the use of all euphoriant substances other than for medicinal purposes should remain prohibited. Doing so, the response claims, is in itself preventative. The second reason given was that the proposals, by giving approval to the use of cannabis, would increase accessibility, use and ill effects, and the reduction of criminality associated with the illegal drugs market is best countered by intense and targeted policing.

Current practice and legislation therefore remain intact. Research and evidence obtained by Københavns Kommune and others indicate that cannabis is widely available throughout the city; is frequently sold alongside other illegal drugs; and that the market is controlled by criminal groups, who have used violence and shootings to protect their market share. The drugs market situated in the Christiania district – ‘Pusher Street’ – continues to operate, implicitly separating the markets for cannabis and other drugs, and accepted or tolerated by the authorities, less so by local residents.

Blaine Stothard is an independent consultant in health education.