READ COPENHAGEN'S ILLEGAL! MAGAZINE

A magazine that empowers Copenhagen's homeless.

The neighbourhood of Vesterbro in Copenhagen is next to the old meatpacking district. There is a mixture of retail and residential buildings and an odd combination of Turkish supermarkets, fixed wheel bike shops and organic vegan restaurants. Within this three-block-wide area are two hostels for the homeless, a free café for drug users, two safe injection facilities and two mobile safe injection facilities. Until a few years ago there were only the hostels, the rest is the work of Michael Lodberg Olsen.

“This neighbourhood has the most drug users and the worst conditions in Denmark. Around the back side of the central station about 700-800 drug users and homeless visiting this area every day," he tells us. 

Michael has lived in downtown Vesterbro since 1994 and witnessed the very worst of the neighbourhood: “We have seen drug users dying on the streets from an overdose and it has been our responsibility to call 112, for an ambulance to come.”

His frustration with the local government and their lack of action or support for such street minorities drove him to force change in another way, by privately financing a mobile safe injection facility for the areas. “For 20 years the politicians have been saying that having a safe injection facility is not legal. Our lawyers cannot find anywhere in Danish or international law saying it is against the law, so we just did it. We bought a German ambulance, we fixed it and we put it on the streets. We didn’t know what would happen, but the police never came. After a year the government made a law that municipalities were allowed to use the SIF and then the municipality of CPH took over our two mobile units.” The first mobile safe injection facility is now in the national museum, something of which Michael is rightly proud. “I’m fucking proud of having the van in the National Museum. It’s a strong symbol, a modern symbol, for the civil society taking the lead.”

Following the unlikely success of the mobile safe injection facilities, Michael has taken on a number of other projects that are all driven by the desire to engender change for civil society outside of the traditional, and ‘primitive’, political system. “I believe in community so I’m probably a socialist, but I stopped voting. Last vote I started an anti-vote campaign. Democracy is based more and more on a lie and more and more on a game, and a game that is no longer relevant.”

Although he accepts he is political, he operates outside the sphere of party politics because he feels that there are too many agendas to satisfy in order to make any real change, “We have to grab the responsibility for our society and get it back to us. The change that we want we can create. Democracy has been like a sleeping pill for civil society; we think that one vote every few years is the meaning of life and then we can get back to earning money.”

His latest project is a magazine called Illegal!, sold exclusively by the homeless drug users that he has been trying to help over the past 12 years. The main point of the magazine is to give the vendors the chance to earn money and avoid the chance of them coming into contact with the police. However, he insists that the magazine can be more than this, and that they strive to make the content as good as possible. “More and more people are giving the salesperson the money but not taking the magazine. Its very important to us to have a great product,” he says. Michael hopes it will also act as an educational tool, informing those who read it about drugs – both the negative and the positive – and open a more neutral debate about how drugs are viewed and what the war on drugs is creating.

“I believe in education and that it is stronger and more heavy than a war. We have to be aware of it and we have to be open about it, about using it and needing help.” Michael and the team at Illegal! are not encouraging the use of drugs through the magazine, nor are they enabling addicts to make money solely for drugs, as they have been accused. They are trying to empower a marginalised minority and educate a population on an issue that has been manipulated by governments all over the world.