Johanna Kinnock continues her exploration (see part 1) of how a harm reduction café in Copenhagen quietly provides an alternative to the war on drugs.
Café Dugnad is, to my knowledge, the only harm reduction spot in the world that combines food and drugs: where drug paraphernalia (known as ‘gear’) and meals are handed over in tandem. Here, food safety is actively enmeshed in more minimalist conceptualizations of harm reduction. Both the staff and the guests at Dugnad understand that the provision of drug gear not only ensures safer drug-taking; it’s also a way to provide users with a healthy meal.
As Hamoud – a man who had been part of the Vesterbro drug scene for many years – told me over a big plate of lasagne: ‘If I have a place to take drugs, and food is right there, sure, I’ll eat it’. For hard drug users, poor diet and malnourishment are prevalent consequences of a daily drug grind that rarely includes seeking out substantial meals. Like the very skinny Ashley, who told me she could never be bothered to steal food but ‘would always steal what was needed for a fix’.
Food and drugs are rarely connoted in the mind of a user, and even more rarely in societal discourses. Mary Douglas (1966) has argued that ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’ are systems of classification that extend beyond notions of dirt and hygiene to become the basis of classifying groups in society writ large. Gould (1994) argues that partly due to the documented experiential opposition of the two, and partly due to social stigma, drugs and food are perceived as being on opposite ends of the spectrum. Food is considered nourishing, social, pure – contra drugs: toxic, lonely and polluting. Hard drugs pollute society. Drug users loitering the streets are their agential polluting figures.
Of course, this is not a natural state of affairs but a constructed one. As Annemarie Mol reminds us in her philosophical-ethnographic account of medical diagnoses in a Dutch hospital, reality does not precede practices but is constituted by them, thus as items are manipulated by various actors, reality can multiply (Mol, 2002). Her example is that of the ethnographic facts that must occur before atherosclerosis is diagnosed: a person must go to a doctor’s office, the doctor’s office must appear as a doctor’s office and attain the legal status of being a doctor’s office. All these pre-cursors must be in place before atherosclerosis can be diagnosed and come into the world, despite the fact that the pain suffered is experienced as pre-emptive by the patient.
Similarly, the users at Dugnad were addicted before they arrived, yet their arrival implicated them in new ontological understandings of addiction. The ways in which the social facts surrounding any condition (ascleoperosis or addiction) are managed, naturally influence the diagnosis, the treatment – and, importantly, the experience of the patient or user, who reacts accordingly. Social phenomena are understood and created in these relational intercedes of things, so making drugs and food interchangeable fundamentally challenges the hierarchy of meaning that usually exists between them: it creates a new reality for the addict.
Every time a guest asks for a ‘cup of coffee and a needle’, a great gulf of value that usually exists between food and drugs is narrowed within the café. The staff were self-consciously punk about this: ‘Drugs, food cigarettes. The way I see it, we’re not that different, we’re all addicted to something’ said volunteer Lars. The guests at Dugnad, who usually find themselves excluded from societal ideals, are here presented with a place that caters to their most pressing needs: drug addiction and hunger. Their surroundings reflect them, and for once, their addicted bodies are not in dire contrast to the larger social body, to the norms of society.
While Denmark’s recent policies reflect changing cultural attitudes towards drug use, people who use them are still stigmatized and excluded. Dugnad offers a space of exception, a place where users feel accepted. One of the users commented on precisely this:
‘I feel less fucked up when I come here. It feels normal, you know, sitting down for a nice curry, even though people are still chatting shit and doing drugs’.
As the symbolic normalcy of food seeped into addiction, the taboo label of ‘addict’ loosened its suffocating grip. With a meal in front of them, and a brief respite from police aggression, ‘addicts’ found a place with some elbow-room for other identities. A similar answer came up again and again when I asked guests why they liked coming to Dugnad. In Hamoud’s words: ‘well, I guess I feel like I can be myself here’.
Decriminalization, along with the pairing of food and gear discussed above, resulted in this third unique feature of Dugnad’s: offering a place where users could ‘be themselves.’ Hamoud’s statement reveals a sense of relief and a feeling of ease drug users don’t often experience in their daily lives. For drug users, interactions with institutions that were not Café Dugnad usually involved either direct antagonism or self-conscious efforts to present themselves in particular ways in order to get what they needed from authorities and institutions. Summerson Carr (2010) demonstrates, in her metalinguistic examination of therapy at a U.S. clinic for alcoholics, how addiction is often rendered visible via a series of ‘signs’ and ‘patterns’ only recognizable by the sober, ensuring that the social and material benefits an addicted individual can hope to receive are all-dependent on the judgment of, for example, social workers.
Ashley, a trans woman who frequented Dugnad, was involved almost constantly with various forms of local bureaucracy. Whether it was trying to check into a women’s (rather than a – for Ashley highly unsafe – men’s) shelter, trying to claim benefits, or trying to register for a legal sex change, Ashley was always constructing a certain narrative about herself in order to tactically please the specific gatekeepers of these various, complex systems and institutions.
Ashley’s fate depends quite literally on what she tells the social worker, how she narratively formulates her gender or drug use. Ashley experienced interactions with social workers as a relentless assessment of her personality, her sobriety, the success or failure of her ‘journey.’ According to Ashley, her social worker was ‘always judging me and telling me what to do.’ Preparing a joint in the Cafés courtyard, Ashley laughed and added: ‘I just tell her whatever the fuck she wants to hear.’ The guests at Dugnad almost all had an affiliated social worker. They were well-versed in the tiresome routine of what Carr terms ‘flipping the script’: re-ordering the narrative of their addiction to placate state figures; casting themselves as good candidates for various social benefits.
Dugnad offered a space where flipping the script in this way wasn’t necessary. The fact that the extent of Dugnad’s powers of distribution were limited to no-strings-attached food meant that Ashley’s words there held no gravitas. Like Hamoud, she liked coming to Dugnad because she could talk about ‘whatever I want.’ The open-endedness of being able to discuss ‘whatever one wants’ without consequence, enabled users to verbalize less neat and chronological narratives about themselves at the Café.
I once spent a whole day with a user named Dennis discussing the spiritual and personal consequences of addiction: ‘Drugs don’t only affect the mind, they affect the ego and the self. That’s why I have to quit,’ he told me. The next day, he was sat on the self-same bench smoking crack and getting into a row about drug-money. This kind of back and forth is common at Dugnad. Addicts are often working through multiple versions of themselves at any given time, picturing a sober future even whilst preparing a syringe. Dugnad had nothing to offer Dennis beyond food, so he had no stake in euphemizing his narrative.
Dugnad gave Dennis a space and time to reflect without fear of persecution. It is hard, when pursued by police and in search of the next fix, to think more than a few hours ahead. Lenhard (2018) observes that drug addiction on the streets of Paris imposes an intensely structured regime of hustling, injecting and hiding from the police, what he titles ‘drug time’. Hunger doesn’t exactly warrant peace of mind, either.
As George Orwell put it in a 1931 essay on London’s homeless population: ‘their next meal is never secure, so they cannot think of anything but their next meal’. Often, when caught in ‘drug time’ everything else is ‘subordinated’ (Bourgois & Schonberg, 2009) to drugs and moments of peace and reflection are rare. As Dennis told me, his days are usually distinguished by the acquisition and consumption of drugs: his levels of abstinence and money quite literally determine whether he leaves his flat. In contrast, when I first met Dennis he was positioned briefly outside this ‘drug time’; considering both his current reality and his future hopes.
When at Dugnad, Dennis could engage in ‘the simultaneous nurturing of multiple and mutually exclusive life plots’ and thereby foster and attend to what Cheryl Mattingly (2014) terms ‘multiple ethical selves’. Mattingly shows how these experimentations with the ethical self often take place in certain spaces, places and moments: spaces with particular moral properties that differ significantly from those in the outside world, and which thus sanction the small gestures of virtue and reflection through which an ethical self is formed. She calls these ‘moral laboratories.’
Dugnad can be seen as such a ‘moral laboratory’: it is institutionally and ethically different from the outside world and thereby provides opportunity to create new forms of self-stylized morality through small acts (sharing food, getting coffee for staff, chatting openly about drugs). As the users expressed, they felt most at ease when openly musing and joking, most respected and sometimes the most hopeful for a drug-free future.
It is clear that the point at Dugnad is not whether this drug-free future is realized, but that it can be imagined, even briefly lived, as drugs cede to food and sociality in glimpses. What we now know of recovery from addiction shows that it is not the linear process which we have so long idealized. It is often a sporadic, fragmented one, starting over many times and with motivation arriving in bursts or not at all. Apart from contributing to the more obvious benefits of longer life-spans and better diets for the drug users of Vesterbro, it is Dugnad’s pursual of a form of harm reduction in which users can enjoy a semblance of peace, reflection and hygge (cosiness)– amidst the tumult of addiction – that truly ensures its status as a (still) visionary project.
Bourgois, P.I. and Schonberg, J. (2009). Righteous Dopefiend. Durham, North Carolina: University of California Press.
Carr, E. S. (2011). Scripting Addiction : the Politics of Therapeutic Talk and American Sobriety. Philadelphia: Princeton University Press.
Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger. London: Routledge.
Gadejuristen. (2012). Forbudszone er nu fortid! http://www.gadejuristen.dk/forbudszonerne-er-nu-fortid
Gould, A. (1994). Debate. Pollution rituals in Sweden: the pursuit of a drug‐free society. Scandinavian Journal of Social Welfare, 3(2), 85–93.
International Harm Reduction Association. (2010). What is harm reduction? (Vol. 44). London.
Lenhard, J. F. (2018). Making better lives – home making among homeless people in Paris. Cambridge.
Mattingly, C. (2014). Moral Laboratories – Family Peril and the Struggle for A Good Life. Oakland: University of California Press.
Mol, A. (2002). The Body Multiple. (B. H. Smith & E. R. Weintraub, Eds.). Durham: Duke University Press.
Johanna Kinnock (she/her) is an anthropology and politics graduate from Cambridge University. Currently working as a freelance journalist and studying for a masters in modern culture at Copenhagen University. Twitter: @Johannakinnock