Up in smoke: Notorious coffee shop' closes its doors
Police pressure leads to closure of downtown cafe for cannabis users, but its owner's mission to decriminalise the drug may have only just begun
Khodr ‘Cutter’ Mehri is a pro-cannabis activist and provocateur. Through his Facebook page he publicly advertises his exploits: growing high-quality cannabis in his cellar, smoking it openly on the street, and rolling smokeable 'joints' while travelling on aeroplanes. His campaign is to decriminalise cannabis, and his strategy is to normalise its use to such an extent that laws banning the use of cannabis will seem out of step and obsolete.
The 32-year-old faced a setback this weekend, however, after he was forced to close his nine-month-old shop, Smokenhagen. Modelled on a Dutch-style ‘coffee shop’ that permits cannabis smoking, its location on Lavendelstræde is a stone’s throw from City Hall where the mayor, Frank Jensen, recently told The Copenhagen Post that legalising cannabis was the only solution to tackling the crime associated with its illegal trade.
“I’ve wanted to own a coffee shop since I first visited Amsterdam,” Mehri told The Copenhagen Post days before Smokenhagen’s closure. “I realised that Denmark also needed a controlled environment for cannabis smokers. I think that if we had this, then many of the people who became criminals never would have done so. There are no weapons or trouble here.”
In its prime, Smokenhagen extended over two floors and included a café and a shop that sold merchandise and paraphernalia for growing and smoking cannabis. But when The Copenhagen Post arrives to meet Mehri, little remains except murals depicting Bob Marley and the deceased Danish dancehall singer Natasja.
Mehri is sitting with three young men around a lone table at the back of the upper room. They are playing backgammon and smoking a joint while a puppy bounds around our feet. As he throws the dice, blue smoke wafting out of his nostrils, Mehri says he’s not upset about the shop’s premature closure.
“I’m relieved actually. It was about time,” he says.
Mehri is closing down voluntarily after pressure from the housing association and landlords who he claims were threatened with criminal charges by the police.
The police have been regular visitors to Smokenhagen. But while most encounters were friendly, their relationship turned sour one recent evening. A policemen had demanded to enter after claiming he could smell cannabis out on the street. Mehri refused to open to let him in and the police proceeded to batter down the door and pepper-spray Mehri and his guests before confiscating some cannabis.
The door is now roughly boarded up and as herolls another joint Mehri admits that it would have been smarter to open the door.
“But I think I should have the right to deny police entry to my property unless they have a warrant,” he says. “I started the coffee shop to send a message. There’s still nowhere warm you can go and smoke a joint and play backgammon and we need that. We have a lot of young people ending up in the wrong environment because there’s no good place to hang out and socialise and smoke. The only warm, indoor spaces available to smoke cannabis brings them into contact with criminals.”
The interview is repeatedly interrupted as Mehri has to open the locked front door to dozens of mostly young men who pass in and out of the shop. Sitting with us around the table is 27-year-old photography student Mikkel Rask, who says he is tired of the harassment that cannabis users suffer in the city.
“If you can get pepper sprayed for smoking cannabis, then there’s something wrong with Denmark,” Rask explained. “I don’t want to worry about the police busting me on the Metro after visiting Christiania. I’m not hurting anyone. It should be up to the individual to decide how they treat their body. It might not be for everyone, but if it were legal, people could more easily get help and it would also eliminate a lot of criminality. I can’t see what the problem is.”
Mehri was denied permission to put up a sign outside the shop. According to Rask, this infuriated Mehri so much that he invited the shop's users to put up their own sign. A message painted in red graffiti above the entrance now declares: "Some people want free [cannabis] for the people, we want a free people for [cannabis]."
While the message may be a little lost in translation, Rask and Mehri seem to agree that people ought to be entitled to make their own decisions about whether or not to consume cannabis products.
“I acknowledge there’s harm, but not permanent harm. If you’re over 18, it should be your own decision. If you’re not acting responsibly, your friends should help you to not smoke everyday. It shouldn’t be completely banned,” Mehri says, adding that he didn’t start smoking regularly until he was in his early 20s.
Support for the decriminalisation of cannabis is growing. Mayor Jensen is a vocal advocate and so is a majority on the City Council. Mehri also enjoys plenty of grass-roots support. More than 60 of his friends each chipped in 1,500 kroner to join Smokenhagen as members in order to secure the deposit for the building. A survey from last summer also indicated that a majority of Danes supported a state-controlled cannabis market.
However, possessing and selling cannabis remain criminal offences. The Justice Ministry turned down the city’s application to trial a period of cannabis decriminalisation. As a result, Smokenhagen’s chances of surviving were all but extinguished. But Mehri says that was hardly the point.
“The coffee shop raised a lot of awareness and started an important debate. I don’t know if it was a success, but it created a closer bond between smokers. And my goal was to gather all the people together who are really fed up with the system and the laws. I’m still working on the project, and in time it will be a, success but we are still getting there.”
Despite its short-lived existence, it was not in vain. Without it, it's unlikely that Mehri would have managed to develop his personal clothing brand, Smokenhagen (he told the Copenhagen Post that he took no salary from the shop). It also served as a convergence point for the city's cannabis smokers that helped him generate support for his association PropaGanja, which will act as a political platform for Mehri’s future pro-cannabis activism.
The shop is unlikely to be his last attempt to create a social platform for cannabis users, however.
“We need a place like this. It’s like a social club for the old youth. There’s no hidden agenda or criminal mastermind,” Mehri says, before adding thoughtfully: “Besides, it’s f***ing cold outside.”