Heroin chic gets a glossy cover

Only in the Netherlands... a lifestyle magazine for female heroin addicts. Mainline Lady must be the first women's monthly that urges readers to gain weight, says Rose George
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Skinny hags need beauty tips too. Such – in its editor's words – is the philosophy behind a new women's magazine called Mainline Lady.

Published by the Mainline Foundation, a drug outreach organisation in the Netherlands, Mainline Lady is funded by the Dutch Health Ministry and handed out free to female addicts by outreach workers. So far, so boring brochure. But not many outreach publications are written entirely by professional journalists. Not many have 36 glossy pages and feature a tattooed ex-addict called Shauna on the cover. Nor do they have skin-care advice for coke users, or health advice for smackheads. Mainline Lady has more in common with Marie Claire than with any maternal do-goodery.

The idea for the magazine, says Mainline Lady's editor Jasperine Schupp, grew out of an obvious truth – that women drug users have extra problems on top of the usual kinds of addiction damage. They have different health issues (their veins are weaker, and more prone to collapse, for example). They have more to lose – such as children – so they tend to keep their problems secret, and become very isolated. They also don't read the usual brochures, as Mainline's research found.

So Mainline Lady's glossy pages are highly readable, and designed to be recognisable to any reader of women's magazines. "We wanted to create something of beauty," says Schupp. "Women users usually have very low self-esteem. We wrapped up useful information and put it into a beautiful present, so they know they can look beautiful as well, if they take care of themselves."

The stories are usual women's-magazine fodder – men, looks, the figure, sex – but with drugs. The cover story – "Sex at home and away" – advises prostitutes on how to keep a balance between working and having a boyfriend at home. Another piece examines the difficulty of keeping friends and having a habit. Two women, both users, talk about how they've kept their friendship going for 15 years. The tips aren't rocket science: remember to visit your friend in hospital, for example. And show courtesy: "If your friend is visiting, and you don't want to use that day, ask her to use before she comes."

The theme throughout is self-preservation. Don't visit your dealer with all your money, the health page advises. Don't overuse Ventolin inhalers (chasing the dragon, or smoking drugs from foil, damages the lungs). One user asks Dear Doctor whether she can get pregnant, even though heroin use has stopped her period (she can).

But there is little room for worthiness. The horoscopes – which the staff made up after looking at the sky for a few minutes – tell Capricorns to stock up on condoms, and promise Libras that today, for once, their doctors won't just hand out another methadone prescription. With a satirical nod to the typical obsessions of women's magazines, Geminis are told that they might put on weight today, if they're lucky.

There's a makeover for a 38-year-old coke and heroin addict from Amsterdam. And there is humour, of the black variety. On the back cover, a cartoon depicts a housewife in fishnets, ironing her silver foil. Drying condoms are pegged on a washing line, and a basket of used syringes lies at her feet. The caption reads: "Sharpen your syringes often, because it's good for the environment."

But there is poignancy in the Different Times section. "Readers" recruited by outreach workers before publication contributed photos of themselves in childhood and today. The pre and post-addiction pictures make alarming viewing; one featured user says wistfully: "I didn't have any scars then."

Ann Widdecombe would be horrified. Not only is the damage caused by drugs to body and soul unflinchingly exposed in full colour, but there is not one exhortation to kick the habit. Mainline's "harm reduction" policy – popular in Holland, less so here – takes the line that if people are going to take drugs, it is better to do it safely. And with entertaining reading material.

Mainline Lady also reaches parts that drugs organisations can't. "You can see who the prostitutes are, and you can get to them," explains Schupp. "But the women with jobs and families keep their habits secret." Though the Dutch have much more contact with their addicts than most countries – about two-thirds are known and accessible – women with something to hide almost never come forward for help. So Mainline's workers go to dealers' houses to wait for outreach-shy clients. When they come in, they get advice. Now, they get Mainline Lady, too.

This first issue is a pilot. It's not clear whether another issue of Mainline Lady will be hitting the streets, but so far the response has been astonishing. Male users ask for it, pretending they want it for girlfriends, and complain that there isn't a men's equivalent. Women plead with outreach workers for copies. "Then they sit down on the pavement and read it on the spot," says Schupp. "You can't get much better satisfaction as a journalist, can you?"