Illegal! magazine (Photo via Illegal! Twitter)
Talking openly about the realities of drug taking is seen by some as the modern day equivalent of giving novels to Victorian ladies: to be avoided at all costs in case it spurs the innocents into flights of fancy.
This is what some people dislike about Illegal! – a magazine full of articles and illustrations about taking drugs, sold for a profit by drug users and launched on the streets of east London last week. They think that if you discuss the realities of drug use and how to avoid being killed by drugs, it somehow legitimises drug taking and encourages people to go out and get high.
What has really irritated polite society is that the publishers freely admit their team of vendors may buy drugs with the proceeds, a truism that the Big Issue magazine has always been careful to shove under the carpet (for their part, Big Issue told the BBC that they have a pastoral role to move their vendors away from drugs). It has sparked predictable outrage in the tabloids, some of whom have suggested that Illegal! should in fact be made illegal. Most reports have, mischievously, alleged the magazine is published "just so drug addicts can sell it at a profit to help feed their habit".
There is more to Illegal! than that. For sure, the magazine's editor-in-chief, the social activist Michael Lodberg Olsen, launched the quarterly magazine in Denmark last September in a bid to give drug users an income "beyond theft and prostitution" and the cover of the magazine's second issue in Denmark declared, "It's the best alternative to sucking cock on the street".
But UK launch editor Louis Jensen, a chirpy 26-year-old from Hastings who I met after he's just been on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff to defend the magazine from the tabloid fury, said Illegal! will not just be sold by homeless drug users, but by any drug users as long as they are up for it. He said the magazine's chief aim is to "educate people and open up a conversation about drugs".
Jensen first came across the Danish original, which has included drug-related articles on Mexican narco ballads, Copenhagen's street sex workers and cannabis legalisation, while filming a documentary in Copenhagen. He was impressed by the magazine and by Olsen and offered to help spawn the UK version. Personally, he says drugs have always been a big part of his life. His parents openly smoked weed, he used to make money selling coke and one of his best friends died from a heroin overdose.
"We need this kind of information in the UK. It's like sex education," he said. "Research has shown that the more young people are taught about the realities of sex, the less likely they will get an STD. The same goes with drug education. The more information they have, the less likely the will be to suffer harm or die."
In London Illegal! is selling for £3.50 a copy, has nine vendors and a print run of 2,000. This special launch edition is a how-to guide for "safer and more enjoyable drug use" with arty illustrations. Written by the respected addictions specialist Dr Adam Winstock using responses from his Global Drug Survey, it covers the use of cannabis, cocaine, ecstasy, alcohol and new psychoactive substances.
It advises cocaine users to finely chop their powder "for better interaction with the nasal lining, better dose management, easier snorting action reduced waste and nasal damage". Cannabis users are told to "grow your own: to avoid contact with dealers, grow strains that suit your tastes and so you know what you are smoking. An added bonus will be learning a bit of gardening."
So how's the A5 black and white mag going down? "The magazine has really confused people," said Jensen. "They don't know whether to agree or disagree with it. Our vendors say the reaction from the public so far has been 50:50, some have said it's disgusting, some that it's a really good thing."
I spoke to Josephine, 26, a former crack and heroin user and hairdresser from Hackney who started taking drugs at 12 and stopped at 24. She's been selling the magazine since the launch. She's the most successful vendor and has so far sold nearly 500 copies, making a whopping £1,680.
"This magazine's a great idea, it's better for people to sell a magazine than to sell themselves," she said. She used to sell the Big Issue, but says it did not help her get off drugs. "I hope it gives people a better understanding of drug users because people look at you different when they find out you have a heroin problem, they see you as a scumbag."
Illegal! is not the first drug publication to tell it like it is and create a stir in the UK. In 1987, on the back of Manchester's growing heroin epidemic, Smack in the Eye, a Furry Freak Brothers-style comic that used dark humour and junkie vernacular to get across drug safety messages, was launched by drug agency Lifeline.
This, and a series of other Lifeline comics and leaflets, such as E by Gum, Better Injecting and McDermott's Guide to Cocaine, gave explicit advice and were a far cry from the drug information being published at the time. Michael Linnell, who designed the comics, said most of the information about drugs at the time was "written by middle-class professionals for a middle-class audience and had no relevance to any of the drug users that we were talking to".
But the publications got Linnell in deep trouble. He was interviewed twice by the Director of Public Prosecutions and threatened with arrest under the obscenity laws for depraving and corrupting heroin addicts, which he still finds amusing. After publishing one leaflet on safe sex the Catholic Herald demanded he be banned from stepping foot in Ireland. "We used to live in mortal fear of the postman because of the outrage simply talking about drug injecting and Aids caused," Linnell told me.
One letter from a drug worker in Surrey, who had seen a copy Smack in the Eye, described it as "vile offensive trash" written by "foul mouthed perverts unfit to associate with normal decent people". The letter went on: "As for the scum you claim to help I wouldn't lift a finger to help the maggots. By the way copies of this scandalous crud have been sent to my local police force and MP. I hope you burn in the fires of hell you stinking degenerates."
Lifeline's publications were discussed in the House of Lords and on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The Sunday Times could not contain its anger at one leaflet, Getting Caught With Drugs, aimed at under-17s who were warned to "remember that parents search bedrooms and pockets".
"Some people have always wanted to play the stupid morality game," Linnell told me. "You have to accept the reality of the situation someone is in. If you want people to act on information you are giving them, it's important for them to see that you are on their side and that the information is based on real experience."
Publications such as Smack in the Eye, Illegal! and Black Poppy, the long running "drug users health and lifestyle magazine", provide an alternative to the warnings given out by government agencies such as Talk To Frank, which has been responsible for some embarrassingly bad anti-drugs ad campaigns and is virtually ignored by young people. A survey of 500 school children in Nottingham found that while more than half had heard of Talk to Frank, just two per cent had visited the site and only half of them had found it useful. A 2011 study into the effect of anti-drugs campaigns around the world published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, concluded they have little or no impact on consumption.
However, for publications that talk about drugs in a language that people can actually relate to, the flak awaits. Last month, Edinburgh council was slammed by the tabloids for "telling children how to take drugs" in a booklet for teenagers about safe drug taking. The advice included globally recognised tips on ecstasy use such as starting with half a pill, staying hydrated and taking regular breaks from dancing to cool down. But this potentially life-saving help was condemned for sending kids the message that "taking drugs is an OK pastime".
Jensen said the next issue of Illegal! out in February 2015 will be crowd-funded and themed around women and drugs. His growing team of vendors – he wants to start selling Illegal! in Glasgow too – will buy the magazine for £1.50 to cover production costs.
Illegal! has an uphill battle to try and change the public's perception of drugs. A short BBC story about the magazine yesterday interviewed three members of the public, who all thought it was a bad idea, with one commenting, "I don't believe in drugs and all that".
Josephine, the star vendor of Illegal! has a different view. She will be spending most of the money from her hard graft on Christmas presents for her family, including her two children aged five and three.