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Illegal earnings

July 26 2016
© Illegal magazine © Illegal magazine
Mat Amp, who knows a thing or two about addiction, met the editor of 'Illegal' magazine and found out more about the campaign for decriminalisation

Mat Amp, who knows a thing or two about addiction, met the editor of Illegal magazine and found out more about the campaign for decriminalisation.

An addict on a central London street shivers against the cold and the rising junk sickness in her soul. She has been arrested numerous times for drug use and solicitation, and scrapes together a living by giving clumsy handjobs in dark alleys to fund her habit. Meanwhile in Sinaloa, Mexico, the narcos know who’s in charge: their boss lives above the law as one of the richest men in the world.

These are the extremes of a 50-year war on drugs that has put a fortune in the pocket of organised crime and left millions either incarcerated or dead. It’s one I’ve got some personal knowledge of; I was no Mexican drug lord, but I made a decent living out of selling drugs in the past. And I took a lot more than my fair share of them too.

Now (after a drug habit that spiralled into addiction) I’m clean and everything I do for money is legit. But drugs and the sub-cultures they create still fascinate me, so when I came across the controversial magazine Illegal, which features articles “about drugs and culture” and is sold on the streets by drug users, I had to know more.

Social activist Michael Lodburg Olsen launched the magazine in Copenhagen. In 2014, Louis Jensen imported it into the UK, and piloted it in Hoxton and Shoreditch. It was then launched across the UK capital in March this year, and claims to help “those who have become dependent and forced into criminality or prostitution to get their next fix”.

Those who buy the magazine are warned that it is “very likely” that the vendor will buy drugs with the profits.

Understandably, perhaps, it’s had its fair share of critics; the Big Issue’s Jim Mullen told the BBC that rather than helping people move on with their lives, it left them trapped in addiction, while the Metropolitan Police has also expressed concerns.

But London distributor Louis does not agree. He is refreshingly honest about the fact that a majority of the magazine’s vendors are in active addiction.

“We are just not hiding away from the fact that these people do go out and commit crime and prostitute themselves for drugs,” he explains. “So why not give them some fucking dignity in earning the money that they use to buy their drugs?”

In fact, he thinks many of his critics are hypocrites. “You need to educate and inform people, and allow them to make their own choice,” he says. “If you make a good job of the education, there would be no reason to be criminalising people. Basically, this is a healthcare issue and an educational issue, not a judicial issue.”

And the magazine does seem to be helping people to help themselves. Louis tells me with pride that “one vendor made £7,500, managed to get a flat, get her kids back... She’s got a bank account now.”

Despite its success, Louis, who also ran as a candidate for CISTA – a pro-cannabis party calling for drug reform – understands the magazine’s limitations. While it helps prevent drug users having to break the law to find money to fund their habit, it doesn’t help them stop breaking the law by taking drugs.

What it does do is offer a platform that puts decriminalisation on the agenda.

“What we really want to do is get involved with policy changing. I’m in it for the long game. In six years time I want to run for parliament again,” he explains.

My own drug journey took me through loved-up rooms packed with sexy ravers and made me lifelong friends before dumping me in a cold alley fumbling for collapsed veins in the dark. By the time I called it a day, I was just another invisible junkie on the streets.

The question is: would things really have been better for me under a more liberal and permissive drug regime?

If you’d asked me at the time, I’d have said no way. But now – with no vested interest other than helping others cope with the struggles I had – I’m convinced of the need to not only decriminalise drug use but legalise and regulate them all.

Increasingly, it seems, this is not a radical point of view. A report by the the Royal Society for Public Health, published last month, is clear on its support for decriminalisation. Only a quarter of the professionals they surveyed think the current UK drugs strategy is working. The majority believe decriminalisation is the way forward.

In her introduction to the report, Dr Fiona Sim OBE (Chair RSPH) says “[current drug policy] has failed on many levels. It has criminalised and stigmatised a significant proportion of the population, many of whom are the most vulnerable people in society.

“It has rendered illegal drugs very much more dangerous than they might be and it has unhelpfully skewed precious law enforcement resources.”

Even the Times – usually a bastion of the Conservative worldview – published an editorial at the time of the report’s publication stating that: “the government should be encouraged to think of decriminalisation, not as an end in itself, but as a first step towards legalising and regulating drugs as it already regulates alcohol and tobacco.”

Could we finally be getting somewhere? Could we really start seeing drug addition as a health issue rather than a criminal one?

Perhaps, but while a majority of the public now support decriminalisation, there are still many people who just see all drugs and anything to do with them as harmful and negative. A member of the public was asked in that BBC interview in 2014 what she thought of ILLEGAL. “OWWW,” she replied. “I don’t agree with drugs.”

I have a different problem. Drugs don’t agree with me. But I still think what we need now is honest and open debate.

Where next? The jury is out, but Illegal remains on sale.

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