Disclaimer - This is far away from my usual work published on this site but my website is the best current platform for the creative partnership between my good friend and journalist, Joel Watson, who wrote this piece, and myself documenting our endeavours.
Generally speaking, I try to avoid areas of the world where men in balaclavas sell drugs in great quantities. But since Copenhagen’s marijuana market in Christianshavn is one of its most visited tourist attractions, we decided we’d give it a whirl. When in Rome.
We spent our first morning wandering around the tourist centre of the city, passing through the high street on our way to the harbour. We passed by Hans Christian Andersen’s house, a red-painted building with a small Danish plaque on the wall. The only other indication that the legendary fairy-tale writer once lived here is a gift shop of extraordinary tastelessness lurking in the neighbouring building. Inside, a life-sized and motorized Andersen sits in a chair watching the world go by.
Despite the overcast day the streets were crowded so we wandered off in search of one of Copenhagen’s tallest buildings: the Church of Our Saviour. Not that it took much finding: the 90 meter-tall landmark was built across the 17th and 18th centuries and it still towers over the rest of the city.
It’s well worth the trip up. Once you’ve negotiated the queue, the gut-punch of an admission fee and the dumpy American tourists who’ve given up halfway through their ascent, you’re faced with a spiralling climb on the outside of the tower for the finale.
Someone with a better head for heights would have appreciated the commanding view of the city the spire offered. Unfortunately I was rather busy clinging onto the railings with white knuckles as the wind threatened to jettison me from the church and turn me into a modern art installation on the street below. Rather gratefully we descended from the peak and set about finding the Marijuana capital of Scandinavia.
Christiania is a former hippie/anarchist commune that started in an old military barracks in 1971. A group of squatters moved in 45 years ago and against the odds - and despite a brief interruption in 2011 - they’ve managed to remain there ever since.
I walked into the place picturing a cross between Glastonbury festival and an urban version of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach, and to start with, that seemed like a pretty accurate description. We passed by some tuneless buskers who were staring through the fabric of existence with dilated pupils.
There was a concrete skate-park with a couple of helmeted ten-year-olds flinging themselves around on skateboards and drawing a little crowd. Then we walked into an open air market selling baggy trousers, homemade jewellery, all manner of turquoise crap and some pretty tasty looking food.
It was at that point a large man with a Rasta beanie bulging with dreadlocks had a rather angry confrontation with Ben about his camera. Somehow we’d missed the giant signs with red crosses drawn through cameras. It seemed strange though; sure there was a lot of stoners walking about the place, but nothing you wouldn’t see in any festival you care to name. Then we turned around corner and found out why the man had been so irate.
Pusher Street looks like your bog standard market, with small stalls squeezed into a narrow corridor between two buildings. But unlike most markets, all the sellers were wearing balaclavas bright enough to give you a migraine, and all they sold was weed.
Bricks of marijuana, oils, pastes, baggies, pre-rolled joints, plants, seeds and bongs. All sold by men with bad teeth from behind a draped screen of camouflage mesh that covered most of the stalls. I’ve never seen so many so many drugs in one place.
Except it wasn’t all drugs, just marijuana. They’re quite strict about that. Apparently some gangs used to sell harder drugs from the hippie haven, but that was more than the police were willing to tolerate so they kept raiding the place until all that was left was weed.
Since then, whoever’s behind the marijuana market (gangs or locals from the commune, it depends who you ask) have lived in an uneasy peace with the authorities. Pusher Street still gets raided from time-to-time - three weeks before we turned up apparently - but it’s largely tolerated as long as it doesn't get too out of hand.
Five minutes after walking out the place we were in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods in Copenhagen. The contrast was shocking.
After all that excitement we decided the best thing to do in the evening was pay far too much for a couple of pints and see some of the jazz festival that had engulfed the whole city for the week. Typically we got lost and everything was finished when we found our destination, but we got in a bar that had a live jazz/hip-hop combination. We didn't understand a word, but the music was great and the walk back to the hostel was prostitute-free. What more could you ask for?