Opinion | So radically intimate it takes your breath away

Friday September 6 saw the release of the first issue of the magazine ILLEGAL! A magazine focusing on drug-use. Each issue costs 30 kroner, of which the drug addict who sells it gets to keep 20 kroner. In that respect, ILLEGAL! is, on the surface anyway, similar to homeless newspaper Hus Forbi, which for years has helped the homeless earn money and improve their living situation. ILLEGAL!, however, is designed to be somewhat different from its homeless sister publication.

Reading ILLEGAL! there are two things I notice right off the bat.

Firstly, it looks oddly familiar. It is almost perfectly square. It is small and made of rough paper that could well be recycled. There is a total absence of colour. The magazine’s appearance is – with a little poetic licence – a fairly accurate representation of the life of a drug addict: square, small, rough, recycled and utterly colourless.

Dominating the cover of the first issue, which I picked up on a street corner, was an enormous blunt, a pair of Ray-Bans and a motorcycle cop’s helmet. The cover is rather virile. Almost like a fetish. Maybe, what ILLEGAL! resembles most is the forgotten 1970s magazine Week-end Sex. Its size, roughness, forbidden character and (maybe most of all) hand-held characteristic (thanks to its shape and size, you can read it with one hand and still have the other one free) gives the magazine a practical significance that surpasses its political aim. This is not just a magazine with a meaning; it is a magazine with a real purpose.

Hence, the other thing that ILLEGAL! makes readers aware of is that buying the magazine makes them an accomplice to a drug deal. The proceeds from the sale simply fund an addict’s purchase of illegal drugs. There are, of course, other ways they can fund their habit, but ILLEGAL! stands out in an unexpected way in that the magazine here has a stated goal. ILLEGAL! is a “helping hand for drug addicts” that they can “get their hands on their next fix”, the editors write in their foreword.

Side by side
It goes without saying that we’re talking about a controversial magazine, not only because drugs are illegal, and because drug use is dangerous, but also because we – those of us that orbit society’s so-called sphere of normality and who occasionally reach out to someone in need – have to stop and consider that by helping we allow them to do something that is alien to us.

ILLEGAL! allows us to accept that our lives can be lived side by side – for better or for worse. We might find that our needs (theirs as well as ours) can be totally different (for example the relationship between addiction and freedom). It may be that we are even made uneasy by the way our divergent lives are dependent on each other or by the way an addict’s desperate search – his/her way of using and abusing substances – utterly surpasses our vulgar urge to help. Once you’ve paid for an addict to buy drugs, and then he (or she) finds a step, a sandpit or even the courtyard of your building to shoot up, the magazine’s controversial political aim dissipates and is replaced by the physical embodiment of a rush.

Social construction or not, the rush is probably what it is all about for many addicts. And in this respect, ILLEGAL! is a means to get high as much as an attack on a particular political discourse.

For me, ILLEGAL! is a heretofore unseen politically incorrect attack on society’s conception of ‘normality’. Put another way, behind the familiar dilemma (which is by no means absent from the pages of ILLEGAL!) that while illegal drugs are illegal and deadly – turning addicts into criminals helps neither crime nor health statistics – there is another, more complex and somewhat repulsive attack on the way ‘normal people’ live their lives. It is an attack against all of us – against our morals and against our belief that life is basically good. The magazine, then, possesses a disconcerting duality; it argues for the good by appealing to common sense, while at the same time inviting madness and the unrequited into the normalcy of common sense.

Appetite for self-destruction
ILLEGAL! uses its table of contents to repeat a number of widely held truths: the war on drugs, failed because it ruins lives more than it stops the flow of drugs; legal drugs are more damaging per capita than illegal (exemplified by David Nutts’ 2010 list of the 20 most dangerous drugs, which saw alcohol take a dubious first place, ahead of heroin, crack, meth and coke); that legalising drug use would be more profitable for society than keeping it illegal (since anti-drug efforts wind up devaluing the addicts illegal capital, which leads to higher rates of criminality); that there is a sense of panic amongst those warning about the damage drugs can do, and that this panic, according to a 1968 op-ed by sociologist Erik Manniche, paves the road for increased profits for dealers, and not fewer drug deals.

While ILLEGAL! does a good job of making a common sense, legitimate argument in favour of decriminalising drugs, it also does a more than adequate job of speaking on behalf of addicts (who owe their condition to societal circumstances). And it is in this respect that ILLEGAL!, crouching in the dark shadow of our normalcy, adds something new to the discussion about drugs. In my eyes, ILLEGAL! has the potential to become more than just a wordy publication. It could actually make a difference.

I don’t see ILLEGAL! as “pissing on the system that pisses on us”, as one of the cartoons in the first issue illustrates. No, ILLEGAL! is radically different; it is the first magazine I have ever seen or heard of that contributes to the mere self-destruction related to the misuse of drugs.

Addiction is radical. The effect of drugs on the body and the mind is beyond comprehension. And for addicts, death is often more real than life. This shouldn’t prevent us from doing something radical. Rather, it obliges us to do something radical. ILLEGAL! and its stated goal of becoming a legal means of financing addicts’ illegal self-destruction certainly meets the definition of not just something radical, but also something radical in its degree of difference.

We know that drug use is illegal and that it is destructive, but when we buy ILLEGAL! we are accepting that politically incorrect recognition, which states that destructiveness is a fact of life for some people. And, in an age when the dominating moral and political tendencies make it impossible to change the situation, we choose instead to support criminal behaviour by financing it. This is so radically intimate that it takes your breath away. And even though the consequences are unfathomable, let me conclude by making a plea to everyone to buy an issue of ILLEGAL! and help out an addict. Or maybe buy five issues and pay for his/her next fix.

The author is an external lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Copenhagen.

Previously printed in Weekendavisen in an abridged frormat.