From Iceland — Something Is Rotten In The State Of Denmark: An Interview With Nanna Gotfredsen

Something Is Rotten In The State Of Denmark: An Interview With Nanna Gotfredsen

Published October 12, 2015

Nanna Gotfredsen is the founder of Gadejuristen (“The Street Lawyers”) a Denmark-based NGO dedicated to outreach street lawyering. Hers was one of several interesting talks given at a two day conference on drug policy, Imagine Peace in the Drug War, which was staged last weekend at Tjarnarbíó, to commemorate John Lennon’s 75th birthday. The conference was organized by Snarrótin, an Icelandic civil rights NGO that has actively campaigned for a more humane drug policy in Iceland.

Before Nanna gave her talk, we sat her down to discuss her work as a street lawyer, how she got into this line of work and what it is exactly that Gadejuristen do.

So, how did you become a street lawyer?

I have to admit, I didn’t go to law school to become a street lawyer. I thought I would be at court all day, just an ordinary lawyer who would make a lot of money.

It all started when I was just about to finish law school. I had a job and I worked a lot, but I had bought a flat in the area right behind Copenhagen’s Central Station (Where you’ll find Vesterport and Østergade, along with an open drug scene). That’s when I started meeting the street people, and I became very frustrated by seeing how much they suffer. At my talk, I’ll be showing images of the terrible wounds, abscesses and the awful illnesses they have to endure.

It just felt so strange, in-between discussing Denmark’s welfare state I’d walk around my neighbourhood and find that something really was rotten in the State of Denmark.

These people were being turned away from hospitals, they didn’t receive any benefits, it was just crazy. So I got very angry, and I started to accompany people to social benefit offices and hospitals, to try and get them some help.  When they brought their very own law student with them, they were treated very differently from before. For instance, I went with a guy to the social benefits office who hadn’t received any social benefits for eight years. In just twenty minutes, I their tune changed, and all of the sudden he was getting a lot of money. This obviously made him very happy, but at the same time he was really hurt, because he felt he had been denied benefits after saying  exactly the same things as I did.

So that’s where I started. This was around 1997, when the death rate with drug users was rising dramatically. I quickly became very busy, so I established Gadejuristen, to actively engage in outreach street lawyering.

We have this Christania cargo bike, which we just bring out and build a pop-up café around. We offer coffee, hot chocolate with whipped cream, a cigarette for to go with coffee, and a lot of love. A lot of relationships are built this way, where we get to know people in this very humble way. What do I know about living a street life with a drug addiction? I don’t know shit about it. There might be a lot of good things about it, and I just want to be humble and offer my services to those who are interested.

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When we started making the rounds, we started seeing a lot of police brutality. When you stand side by side with the stigmatized, the totally excluded citizens, you see a lot of ugly things go down in the “welfare state of Denmark.“ This realisation was our starting point.

So what do Gadejuristen focus on today?

Our work very quickly started focusing on the right to health, the right to privacy and equal rights in general. This was just a completely new concept: It had become ordinary practice to deny people their rights, to arrest them for nothing, to confiscate their drugs and to fine them for simply existing in a location they had been banned from. The list is endless, there were so many rights violated: Social rights, health rights, the right to housing, debt problems…

Another issue was the police. When you are a drug-using, street-based sex worker and you get raped, the police will often refuse to take your complaint. However, when when we go with them of course we get to report it.

So yeah, our work is devoted to this group of people whose rights are regularly denied by society on no grounds. That’s just not right.

Another important aspect of our work is identifying our clients’ needs. Very early on we determined that we needed DCRs [Drug Consumption Rooms, safe spaces to inject or use drugs]. When we started out we had 5-600 people injecting daily in the open drug scene. There was a great need for DCRs, especially because of the dramatic increase in drug related deaths. We also needed heroin treatment, we had a lot of opium or heroin addicted drug users. These two were the most important issues.

Have you made any progress on that front; do you now have DCRs?

Yes! A big Victory!

We now operate DCRs in the three major cities; Copenhagen, Odense and Aarhus. We only have one in Odense and Aarhus, which I think is too little, but there are more in Copenhagen. How we got there is a great story. One of the local communities organized and financed the purchase of an old ambulance from Germany in September 2011. We had asked for it, shouted for it, demanded it for a long time, but one government after the other rejected it on crazy grounds, like that that they would lead to young people injecting drugs, even though there is no research supporting that! So we just started a mobile DCR without asking anyone for permission.

Another milestone was when we published a report in 2002. It detailed the positive experiences of other governments with drug consumption rooms, from Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, and Germany, and then we reached out. We spoke with local government, people in parliament and journalists and we really fought hard for getting the DCRs and heroin treatments going.

Our first success was in 2007, when a conservative government surprisingly agreed to allow for a heroin treatment programme. But they didn’t base their decision on the experience of other countries – I think the main reason behind the majority of MPs supporting heroin treatment was because of a story from a street based heroin addicted sex worker.

The story of the young sex worker and the predatory necrophiliac

One of my clients met with a reporter from Berlinske Tiderne and told him her story. She told him how hard it was to work 365 days a year selling blow jobs just to be well. Just to get your medicine. She told him about how it can be so hard that she goes into the treatment system to get a methadone subscription, which would work for a while. However, if you are addicted to heroin, that’s what you prefer, so methadone is not the best medicine. To compensate, she started using benzodiazepimes, because if you take them with methadone the effect is almost like that of brown heroin. Her problem was that she was a known drug user, and as such, she could not get a subscription for benzodiazepam (“benzos”). Meaning she had to get these pills off the streets, where they are very expensive.

Her only solution was to go to a man she had turned down multiple times as a client. This man, a 71-year-old declared necrophiliac stated proudly that he had never slept with a dead body. Instead, he would offer young drug addicted women 50 benzo pills for allowing him to sleep with them while they were unconscious from overdosing on them. This would make him feel almost like he was having sex with a dead body.

She cried when she told me this the first time. She said: I’ve turned him down so many times, but my life sucks, I can’t do this anymore, he pays very well. Fifty benzo tablets cost a lot of money on the streets. So he paid very well. Maybe it was also easy in a way, because she was unconscious during the act, but it’s so dangerous!

She cried because when she woke up she was bleeding from her rectum and she was so scared. She didn’t know if the man was alone or had brought others along. She didn’t know if he was HIV infected or whether he used a condom, but she still had to have him as a client because he offered the best pay. It was just an awful story.

When Berlinske Tiderne published her story, it really changed the climate. The Danske Folkeparty, which is very conservative, started saying things like: “Oh this has become too tough, too hard, we need to do something about it, we need to start heroin treatment.” So it was really just this one story that made the difference.

How do you feel about Denmark’s current drug policy?

Well, the DCRs are amazing, and so is the heroin treatment programme, but the projects are still too small.

For instance, only 200 people are enrolled in heroin treatment, while thousands remain in need. And the programme itself is very strict. People have to go there every day twice a day, and they still have to do methadone during nighttime. Yet, to get enrolled in the heroin treatment you are not allowed to have benefitted from methadone treatment. It’s completely ridiculous. This is what happens when health authorities organize something without any consultation or consideration of the needs of the affected population. They don’t involve them, and obviously, don’t know anything about them.

This is probably the worst part about drug policy. It is organised in a place far removed from the people who are affected by it. Good drug policy is locally formulated, adapted and created in very close collaboration with those who need the services.

When I was looking into your work I came across the term J-Cards, could you tell us a little bit about them?

J-Cards were actually one of the first things we came up with at Gadejuristen. At the time there was just me and the two pioneering street nurses in Copenhagen and we were volunteering our time alongside working our day jobs. We couldn’t be there nearly as much as we were needed. So we felt we had to leave something behind. Some knowledge that would enable people to make healthier choices if they wanted to. How to avoid getting HIV and hepatitis for instance, but also informing people of their rights so they wouldn’t be violated by the police.

Getting to know drug users living in the streets, they had so many questions, and they had nowhere to ask them. So we started writing down these questions, and about a year later we had a batch of a hundred. We took them to medical director in Copenhagen. He wasn’t fond of the idea, he didn’t believe in harm reduction. He wanted us to lecture people, but we didn’t want that. We didn’t want to people to read the cards and feel like they were being smacked in the head with a hammer. We ended up working with a lot of different people. We got the police involved, and all sorts of doctors, dentists and the like to contribute. Our contributors learned a lot from participating. About the conditions these people were living in and about how tough their lives are.

The Police Commissioner was in shock when he read some of the questions from our clients. One of them had asked if the police was allowed to search your rectum and vagina for drugs. He thought: We don’t do that, do we? But they do, the police have a lot of plain-clothes officers patrolling the streets and we hear a lot about how they work. But the Commissioner, how is he supposed to know?

We have countless J-Cards by now. We hand them out at our street café. This work has been evaluated, and it turns out that they are very effective harm reduction tools.

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How are your relations with law enforcement in Denmark? Are they receptive to your work, or are you met with hostility encountering them?

We have this candy in Denmark, a very big sugary candy that we call “shut up candy”. From that, we have the expression: You should have a shut up candy. For our 16th anniversary, I invited the Copenhagen Police Chief to attend the party. I called him to ask if he was going to join the celebrations. He told me he couldn’t come, but he had bought me a big bag of shut up candy!

If we go back to the beginning of Gadejuristen, they hated us. According to them, drug users were the bees around our honey pot. They blamed us for the fact that users were staying behind the Central Station. That’s of crazy – we were there because the people there needed us. So we had to fight in the beginning, because they wanted us off the streets. That was back in 1999, when I established Gadejuristen.

Have you made any progress with the police since then?

Definitely, yes.

A good example would be the no-go zones. The Police had enforced these no-go areas for homeless people and drug users since the eighties. They would get a 600 Danish krona fine (approx. 11,000 ISK) if they were found in one of those no-go zones. My flat was in no-go zone number nine, but I was never fined. The police would fine drug users for drug using in public – but what should they have done when we didn’t have DCRs? In recent years, this practice has been used against street-based sex workers. Even though selling sexual services in is not illegal. What is that about?

In 2007, the drug laws were amended so that if you were heavily addicted and were on social benefits, you could not be issued a fine for going into the no-go zones. The police should only issue a warning, even in repeat cases. The tax authorities had figured out that it was costing way too much money, chasing after people to collect fines they had no way of paying.

The police, however, did not implement this legal amendment and continued fining people. Once we had 20 instances of this practice, I called the police chief and asked him if we could have a meeting, or if I had to go to the media with this story. He was very receptive, and we met the next day and actually had a very good conversation. I think it was within 24 hours that the chief had sent out an email to the 600 police officers under his command, ordering them to stop the practice. I think that meeting was the turning point. One we started a dialogue with the police. Of course, we still file complaints against police officers, but that was the point where we began having a very critical and useful dialogue.


In my discussions with the police I introduced them to the term “Evidence based policing”. We started discussing things in a much more qualified way. I learned a lot from these discussions as well. About police issues and politics, and how they get thousands of calls a day from local residents asking them to remove drug users and homeless people from their neighbourhoods. I suggested they could start by asking them to move to another corner once in a while, when the local residents needed a rest from having them around. My argument was that you had to give these people an alternative. Otherwise they were just telling people who had nowhere to go, to go away. The police started following my advice, and they gave up on the no go zones. We had to win a case against them first, and it’s taken over 20 years of battle to get them to stop. Even so, when new police chiefs take office we might have to start all over again.

Still, the police know a lot more now. They understand why people are a lot more aggressive when their benzos gets confiscated than with other drugs. People can die from benzo withdrawals, but the police didn’t know that until we told them. They also know more about violations in other parts of the system. They think people have treatment options, but they didn’t know that many are of very low quality and that people are violated in the treatment system. So they are more aware of the facts and the real issues facing our clients every day.

You will have a talk tomorrow afternoon in Tjarnarbíó. What would you like people to leave with after having listened to your speech?

I would really like if people were not that afraid of drugs anymore. This might be quite difficult, because I have also decided to show people pictures of my first clients, and they are terrible. There are photos of wounds and abscesses that look awful. The wounds are not caused by the drugs though. They are caused because of bad drug policies.

People don’t seem to know that nine out of ten drug users are not problematic users. For the one in ten, the problem is not the drugs themselves. They have mental health issues; they are socially excluded and find no meaning in life; they have a weak social network and little to nothing to live for. So drug use becomes a functional adaptation strategy for people who are completely dislocated from society. People are self-medicating.

The solution to problematic drug use is therefore not to focus on the drugs. The solution is to focus on the context of drug use. If what we offer drug users is social exclusion, repression by law enforcement, if we force them to inject in public and continue to stigmatize them, we will not be able to help them. We could help them by inviting them to speak with us and we would find that people who use drugs are lovely people. They are warm-hearted, intelligent and passionate people who are often very creative individuals that feel a pain inside. They are self-medicating, and we are the bad ones to make them suffer. They are not many, and we could so easily make life good for them. Doing so is not only more humane, it’s also a lot cheaper than the methods we are using to deal with them today.

To me it seems that modern drug policy is what we in Denmark would call a fight between doves and hawks. The doves are harm reduction oriented people and the hawks are those who want a more repressive approach to drug use. Sometimes the doves win and sometimes the hawks win. All the while, we have never had a consistent, evidence based, practical, effective user-based drug policy. This is very costly, in human terms, but also in economic ones. Whichever way you see it, harm reduction and human rights based approaches work. I used to question people’s motives a lot when I started out as a street lawyer, but I no longer care what drives people. I’ve been in this line of work for seventeen years now, and all I want to see is positive results.

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