Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Illegal! magazine allows its vendors to keep sales profits so they can buy drugs rather than stealing to fund their habits.
“If you give them any money, they’ll only spend it on drugs."
Nearly every city-dweller has heard this argument against giving money to panhandlers. But now, a new European magazine actually aims to do just that. Called Illegal!, the magazine is sold by drug users, with their individual profits hopefully deterring them from crime by giving them a less destructive way to fund their habits. Launched in Copenhagen last year, the first English-language edition of the magazine hit the streets of London this month. Working on the same model as The Big Issue, a newspaper sold by the homeless, Illegal! allows vendors to sell the magazine on the streets with a substantial markup from its production cost—with a clear warning that the profits may end up being spent on fueling the seller’s drug habit.
The idea is controversial. Actually helping people to take part in illegal activity is anathema to many, even if it cuts crime rates. Illegal’s own explanation of its model is nonetheless persuasive. The economics work like this: The London edition of Illegal! sells at £3.50 ($5.48). Right now, London vendors are getting their copies free as part of a pilot project, but if Illegal! works out, they’ll be asked to start buying them at £1.50 ($2.35) a copy. Even small sums like this could make a major difference in their lives.
Illegal! claims that an unwaged addict with a £200 ($313) a day habit can cost society £50,000 ($78,000) a month in theft. The cost is so high because stolen goods typically resell for just 10 percent of their value on the street, meaning that a $500 iPhone will only net a thief $50. The financial cost paid by crime victims is vastly greater than the actual money an addict ends up spending on drugs.
Using the 10 percent formula, the $3.13 profit made by each vendor on a copy of Illegal! could reduce the number of goods stolen daily by $31. By giving addicts one legal way to fund their habits, the magazine could not just lighten the burden addicts place on others, but also help to reintegrate them into a daily routine. Increased social contact could also make reducing or kicking their addiction a bit easier.
This is the theory, at least. In reality, making money for vendors is only a part of what Illegal! does. With a current print run of 2,500 for the Copenhagen and London versions combined, the magazine comes out only quarterly. One London vendor managed to sell 80 copies within four days, but unless the magazine becomes a publishing phenomenon, it’s unlikely that selling it would ever fully fund a serious habit.
Illegal! editor Michael Lodberg Olsen is quite open about this. “We want to expand, but the most addictive cocaine user will never pay their way with this magazine. The main thing is to challenge the War on Drugs with knowledge.”
When it comes to content, the articles in Illegal! are not invariably positive about drugs, but they do not condemn their use. Illegal! thus opens itself up to being accused of fanning the flames of addiction, an accusation Olsen rejects. He wants a wider discussion of drug use and abuse.
“It’s the War on Drugs that is creating more users; it’s become a war on people. Things couldn’t be any worse than they are now—drugs have never been cheaper. All we can do is try to make the situation better. We need an honest debate about the good and bad about drugs. We don’t hear that 90 percent of users are using Friday night, with a joint instead of glass of wine. Alcohol, meanwhile, is the most dangerous drug in the world.”
Olsen says Illegal! is more honest about drugs and their consequences than anti-drug campaigns. He says those can be counterproductive, because when young people realize that their extreme messages don’t tally with reality, they lose their faith in them.
“We need to talk to young people out in nightlife who take drugs. They have been told in school that if you smoke, you will end up addicted to hard drugs. It’s a lie, the same lie we’ve heard for 40 years, and young people are reacting against it.”
The magazine’s plan to reach out to addicts without condemning their addiction may be bold, but it’s not without precedent. Back in 2001, the magazine Mainline Lady launched in the Netherlands to reach out to female heroin users. And last year, Dutch NGO Regenbogen Groep grabbed headlines when it started getting hardcore alcoholics to clean up parks by paying them in beer—a project that has proved popular both with participants and the public. Illegal! may still be small, but it could still mark a major sea change in attitudes about addiction and crime prevention.