Michael Lodberg Olsen standing next to the Illegal! magazine van
Michael Lodberg Olsen is the bearded, benevolent guardian angel to Copenhagen's drug addicts. A couple of years ago, the Dane started driving a van around his home city offering heroin users a safe, sterile environment in which they could inject under the supervision of volunteers and trained nurses, rather than behind some trash cans in the park or in a shitty hostel. Olsen's scheme was initially met with a fair amount of local opposition, but in the end he managed to win many of his detractors over.
Michael's latest project, which he launched a couple of weeks ago, is Illegal!—a magazine that hard drug users can buy for $1.80 and sell to the public for around $5.00. At first glance it seems similar to the Big Issue, until you get to the mission statement. While the Big Issue was set up to feed homeless people and get them off the streets, Illegal!'s explicit aim is to help drug addicts—many of whom are homeless—raise money to buy more drugs.
Again, the scheme has attracted criticism—after all, much of the cash handed over will be going straight into the pockets of heroin dealers—but Michael has presented a case that's hard to argue with. Surely it's better that Copenhagen's drug addicts are earning their money selling magazines, than if they are—for example—robbing people, shoplifting, or selling their bodies for sex?
Michael (left) and his colleague Thomas Paalsson
I flew to Copenhagen last week to meet Michael and some of his team at the back entrance to Copenhagen’s Central Station, an area notorious for drug dealing, prostitution, and other forms of street crime. From the get-go, Thomas Paalsson—one of Michael’s colleagues—was eager to stress that the scheme isn’t just a form of glorified begging: “I think the main thing about making a magazine to sell instead of begging is that it becomes more dignified," he explained. "Our goal is to make a magazine that people will actually like, with high-quality articles and interesting graphics. If drug users have something that you really want, then they can sell the product with dignity."
The group behind Illegal! has been working with the city's drug users for over a decade, and these strong ties allow them to provide a deeper level of care than a standard social worker on placement. Thomas explained how, over time, that bond has helped the team tailor their latest harm-reduction service to the needs of the local population: “It’s important to remember that this project is only taking place in this part of Copenhagen—this whole project sprang from a local environment," he told me. "It is, of course, related to the much bigger picture, but it's a civil society project that came about to deal with a local problem."
Which doesn't necessarily mean that tabloid headline writers won't soon have some new social outrage to wring their hands about. While Michael argued that the scheme would have to be adapted and redefined for other cities across the world, they remain excited about the prospect of introducing Illegal! to places like London and Berlin. "It would be interesting to move this to other capitals, because it’s in the capitals where things are starting to move, and where we have to move people on," Michael told me. "We personally can’t do anything about changing the laws, but we can do this project and have a real effect on people’s lives."
The front and back page spread of Illegal!
I called Danny Kushlick from drug policy foundation Transform to get his opinion on whether Illegal! could work in a place like London.
"The Copenhagen project is right at the cutting edge, and is indicative of a society that is more advanced and tolerant than we have in the UK," he told me. "Many Scandinavian countries have some of the highest levels of societal wellbeing in the world, and long histories of tolerance and openness with regard to sex and drugs. The UK does not, and I can't imagine it catching on soon here, unless the Big Issue editorial team undergoes a substantial change of heart."
When I asked Danny what obstacles he saw a London version of Illegal! facing, he responded: "Can you imagine what Boris would say? I would envisage comments such as, 'the deserving and undeserving homeless,' and cries that this would 'taint London's image for tourists'."
So perhaps the Brits will have to wait a while before authorities allow them to legally and explicitly solicit drug money in the street. However, in a promising development, Danish law enforcement—at least when they're off the record—seem to be backing the idea: "Today, two policemen came on bicycles, asked how the project was going, and wished us luck," Michael told me. And many of Illegal!'s vendors have apparently come back to Michael after a day's work and reported that, rather than being targeted for an easy arrest, they have instead been left to sell their product in peace.
While I was chatting with Michael and Thomas, a group of schoolchildren approached us to ask what the project is about, and a steady stream of drug users checked back in to pick up more magazines. Rene, a long-time user, told me that he usually makes money by selling stolen meat—which is switching it up a bit from the more popular methods of robbery and prostitution, but is still clearly against the law.
“The project is a good thing, because it allows me to earn some money to survive,” Rene explained, before telling me that he had been selling the magazine since it launched, along with 33 other vendors, all of whom are required to sign up and wear an ID badge. When I asked what else needs to be done to help drug addicts, his tone changed—he switched back to his native tongue and began to look distraught. “People need to listen to us,” Michael translated for me. “For people to have a connection with us, and not to ignore us."
Other than the financial reward, it's this exact issue that the Illegal! project aims to address. Rather than sidelining drug addicts, the magazine aims to create a bridge allowing users to engage with the general public. It forces the stigma and hang-ups that define the relationship between those two groups of society out into a space where they can be tackled head-on.
The Illegal! van.
"The point of this is to get things out into the open so that you can have people talking about drugs and really dealing with the problem," Thomas continued. "The War On Drugs hasn't made drugs disappear. The criminalization of drug culture doesn't make people take fewer drugs—in fact, they're cheaper and they're everywhere."
With that, Rene took his re-up of magazines off to make some money, which he told me would be spent on "some rocks" once he'd finished his shift. After he left us, Michael made sure to make one point very clear: "These are strong people," he told me. "If I had to live the life that these people do, I wouldn't even last six months. It is incredibly tough."
Before leaving, I bought a copy of Illegal! from one of the users I'd had a brief chat with. After flipping through it, one particular article stood out—an anonymous letter from a drug user, perhaps one of the people I'd seen outside Copenhagen’s Central Station, calling for governments to change the way that they view drug users. “Come on," they wrote, "if you want to help us, do it through cooperation and decriminalize us!"
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox
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