Danish drug users are selling magazines to fund their habit instead of crime, but will it help or hinder the fight against addiction?
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 - 21:28

The Big Issue is known worldwide as a magazine that homeless people sell to help themselves get some cash together.

But a new take on the idea in Denmark is proving rather more controversial.

Drug addicts are being encouraged to sell a new magazine, called Illegal!, to help fund their habits; the idea being that it stops them turning to crime instead.

SBS Europe Correspondent Brett Mason looks at how it works and the very divided reaction to it.

With an estimated 800 drug addicts already coming to Copenhagen's red light district every day, and around 8,000 users across the city, is it set to help or hinder the fight against drug addiction?

WATCH - Click to see Brett's story.

INSIDE THE MAGAZINE - What's inside Illegal! magazine? One of the writers, Lars Hansen, tells Brett about the articles in the first edition.

Inside The Magazine

What's inside Illegal! magazine? One of the writers, Lars Hansen, tells Brett about the articles in the first edition. Plus read more on the magazine's Danish website (or in English via Google Translate).



We're all familiar with The Big Issue, the magazine which provides income to homeless people and others who exist on the fringe of society. In Liberal Denmark the idea has now been taken to a whole new level as hard-core drug addicts sell a magazine called Illegal. Those backing this bold initiative are hoping it will reduce drug-related crime, but is giving addicts an income to buy illicit drugs actually a good idea? Here's Brett Mason

REPORTER: Brett Mason

Like all large cities, Copenhagen has many facets. This is the one the tourists come for but they also have a growing problem with drugs.

MICHAEL OLSEN: Every day I see drug users lying dead on the street. It's been the same treadmill for 40 years.

A long-term resident of Vesterbro, Copenhagen's red-light district, Michael Olsen knows these streets better than anyone.

MICHAEL OLSEN: It's like, four blocks long and four blocks wide. 15,000 people and it's like 800 drug users - very addictive drug users - coming here every day. That's my daughter. Hi! Hello. Hi. Near the Central Station you can buy almost everything that you can buy at a pharmacy, also hard drugs - primarily hard drugs - but also a lot of other pills. We have to try to deal with this problem in a new way, more efficient way, and where we give the drug users more dignity.

Having seen people on the streets selling The Big Issue, a magazine that shares its profits with those homeless who are selling it, Michael decided the same idea could be adapted to help those with a drug dependency.

MICHAEL OLSEN: Illegal Magazine is a magazine that challenges the war on drugs and at the same time creates job possibilities for drug users. Instead of crime and prostitution, they can sell the magazine on the street.

MAN (Translation): Yes, please take an Illegal. See you later.

And the first issue has just hit the streets. Henrik is Illegal's top seller.

HENRIK (Translation): It's a cultural magazine about drugs.

WOMAN (Translation): Three, five;.is that;.

HENRIK (Translation): that's okay, many thanks.

WOMAN (Translation): Likewise.

HENRIK (Translation): Excuse me, have you heard about the new magazine Illegal? It's a cultural magazine about drugs. For example this guy, his great-grandfather delivered hemp rope to the ships.

They are motivated sellers - more magazines means more drugs.

MAN: Yeah I think uh, from what I know I'm no expert but from what I understand the efforts to combat the drug problem in Denmark has not been all that fruitful; ;I think it's a more humane way of dealing with it and also that's the way to motivate people to maybe get rid of their addiction.

Every sale helps reduce the need for users to steal.

HENRIK: Instead of go stealing, I go selling this 'Illegal'.

Curly has been a self-described junkie on these streets for years.

MAN (Translation): How much is it?

CURLY (Translation): 30 kroner.

MAN (Translation): I would like to support that. There you go.

CURLY (Translation): Thanks, have a good evening.

MAN (Translation): Thanks to you too. Are you coming old buddy?

His use is at the highest end of the spectrum - a hardcore addict. It's hardly surprising that not everyone here is happy about this new magazine. Copenhagen Police wouldn't comment about 'Illegal' or the city's drug culture, while one high-profile politician told me that while other publications help and support the homeless, this one supports - even encourages - criminals.

Just a few hundred metres from the country's busiest train station, in the back of a safe injecting van, I watch, uncomfortably, as Curly calmly injects himself with the first of three daily hits of heroin and cocaine. It is not a pleasant sight.

HENRIK (Translation): That's good.

But at least today the self-destructive drugs he craves every minute of every day weren't bought with the proceeds of crime. Drug addicts bye each copy of 'Illegal' magazine for 10 kroner, that's about $2 AUD, they sell it on the street for 6 and spent the $4 profit on drugs. It's not a lot, but Henrik spends what he makes on heroin.

HENRIK: I've always been addicted to white heroin from Thailand or Pakistan. White heroin is number one.

The first edition has been selling well, it's tough to convince customers that buying a magazine where the profits go straight into a drug user's veins is a smart investment. But those who care for the 1,000 addicts who pass through these safe injecting centres each day are optimistic.

JOACHIM RASMUSSEN, CHIEF NURSE: I haven't met one single drug user here that has chosen this as his or her favourite way of life. Most of them don't want to live like this. They really wish for something else. These facilities in the safe injection room is made so they can have a life without the big amount of risks that comes with chasing the drugs and I hope the magazine is a help, too.

As I watch Curly slip further and further into a self-destructive spiral, I realise his is an addiction that will never be cured.

HENRIK: I don't think there will be less crime, but it depends a lot for those people who don't feel good about lying, don't feel good about stealing. They will be so much prouder of themselves because they don't have to break the law. But other people here don't give a shit. For those people it doesn't make a difference. The only difference it will make will be more money.

ANJALI RAO: Well, the war on drugs may have failed, but I'm not sure that initiative is the answer. Brett Mason on the seedy side of Copenhagen. Go online to tell us if you any the idea will catch on. There's more detail about the magazine.





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5th November 2013