Sold by drug users, Illegal, a new Danish street magazine, aims to reform drug policy
A new magazine founded by social entrepreneurs in Denmark is designed to change the lives of drug addicts and the public’s attitude towards them.
Illegal, a magazine sold by drug addicts on the streets of Copenhagen, offers a legal way to earn an income for many who would otherwise turn to theft or prostitution. The concept is a copy of the popular street paper model that is used to benefit homeless people around the world: Vendors sell copies for 40 Danish kroner (about $7) each and keep 25 kroner (about $4.50) from each sale for themselves.
One striking difference between Illegal and other street papers is that customers buy the magazine accepting that vendors will likely use that money to pay for drugs.
“Illegal Magazine is the world’s first culture magazine on drugs and drug users. We emphasize that we are aiming to tell civil society in Denmark about the life, challenges and dilemmas facing drug users, both the hardcore and the recreational,” said Simon Kratholm Ankjærgaard, vice chairman of Illegal and a contributing journalist.
“We wish to change the perception in society of drugs and drug users thereby hoping — in the end — to reach a more humane drug policy,” he said.
Vesterbro in Copenhagen is home to the biggest and most open drug scene in Scandinavia, with 8,000 addicts living within a 2.5-km radius. Many drug addicts turn to crime or prostitution to feed their addiction. Often they become homeless, end up in jail, experience sexual abuse and run the risk of dying from an overdose as well as contracting life-threatening illnesses such as HIV. Stigma surrounding addiction often prevents people from seeking help.
Launched in November, Illegal has seen its second issue double in circulation from 5,000 to 10,000, and the publication now benefits 100 vendors. The magazine contains stories about the arts and culture surrounding the drug environment that are contributed for free by professional journalists, photographers and illustrators.
Ankjærgaard said the concept is working.
“Already with the publication of issue number two there’s been an attitude shift. Vendors are beginning to feel the pride, and the buyers are embracing the magazine and the vendor concept. The benefits are obvious; we cannot neglect the drug culture, we have to face it, and by giving vendors a legal income, we are preventing some of the crime and prostitution associated with the drug environment.”
Illegal’s vendors seem to agree. One of them provided the magazine with its colorful tagline: “The best alternative to sucking dick on the street.”
The magazine’s founders are ambitious.
“One of our goals is to decriminalize the drug users, and the only way to do so — in our opinion — is through the civil society. We have to change the mindset there before it will be possible to rethink drug policy on a national scale,” said Ankjærgaard.
And they are not stopping at Denmark. If Illegal continues to thrive, its founders plan to take it further afield.
Founder of Illegal, self-styled social entrepreneur Michael Lodberg Olsen, is no stranger to this area of work and the controversy it can bring. His previous project was the development of mobile drug injection rooms, where Denmark’s drug addicts could take their drugs safely, with clean needles and trained staff on hand in case of overdose.
“It quickly became an alternative to shooting up in the street,” Ankjærgaard said of the project. “Before the mobile injection rooms, 12,000 used needles laying in the streets — now it’s only a few thousand. Equally important, it has led to national legislation giving way for free public-run injection rooms in the three largest cities in Denmark.”
A new law introduced in 2012 enabled the first tax-funded injection room to open in Denmark, and a second room opened in August 2013.
The success of the injection rooms and the magazine has shown how attitudes towards drug addiction are shifting in Denmark, Ankjærgaard said.
Illegal’s organizers are now turning their attention to another marginalized group in Denmark, Eastern European immigrants. With many people leaving countries such as Romania and Bulgaria in search of better work, the number of unemployed and homeless immigrants has been rising all over Europe. As well as the hardships of poverty and homelessness, immigrants from Eastern Europe often face prejudice and harassment.
“They are seen as a nuisance to a majority of the Danish people, and only a few organizations actually want to help. A few years ago the minister for welfare (under the former government) actually threatened the shelters on public support to shut the door on Eastern European homeless — or their financial support would be stripped,” says Ankjærgaard.