Erin O’Mara, the soft-spoken but hard-edged 40-year-old editor of Black Poppy, recalls the exact moment that the crazy idea to start “The Drug Users Health and Lifestyle Magazine” came to her. It was in 1998, at her London methadone clinic, and she had just met a guy who couldn’t sit down properly because “his bum cheek was literally black from injecting—the flesh was necrotic,” she says. He didn’t want to risk showing his methadone doctor, or a doctor at the local hospital, he told her, for fear that his methadone prescription would be stopped once they knew he was shooting smack.
His fears were all too realistic. “He would have lost his prescription, and the local hospital probably would have informed the clinic,” says O’Mara, sounding as pissed off now as ever. “It was outrageous—he must have been carrying that infection for ages.”
But instead of getting outraged, O’Mara decided to get outrageous. “I really felt that we needed a magazine dedicated to telling people about what was happening in our drug clinics—the kind of treatment we were really getting,” she says. “But it also had to have empowering stuff—information about drug use and the health problems that happen alongside it.”
The beginning of Black Poppy—poppy as in opium; black, says O’Mara, “is the color of solidarity, anarchy, amnesty and human rights”—was more tentative than the typical start-up. There was, for one, the fact that the unemployed and drug-dependent O’Mara had never even turned on a computer. “I started using when I was 15 [in her native Australia], and moved to London at 23 to get straight,” she says. “Which didn’t happen.”
A friendly manager at her local needle exchange introduced her to desktop publishing, and thus was born her first article, on how to safely pick, prepare, and consume magic mushrooms. “Instinctively I knew that was the kind of tone I wanted throughout,” O’Mara says. “It was all about accepting that people are going to take drugs anyway, so let’s just discuss it—and get on with reducing the risks where we can.”
The magazine has an engaging and knowing take on drug culture: past issues have featured articles on the dangers of “skin picking” when high on crack, for example, and safe usage tips for club drugs like ketamine and the ecstasy-like “designer drug” 2-cb; a personal essay from a mother who resorted to buying heroin for her son in an effort to save him from prison; and the last published interview with counter-cultural icon Sebastian Horsley, the author of Dandy in the Underworld,
who OD’d on heroin and cocaine in 2010. There’s a high-brow “Drug Users Hall of Fame” (Patti Smith, William Burroughs, etc.), and a “BP Gallery” of contributions from readers, including the cheeky “Coffee Table Series,” photos sent in by readers showing “the busiest part of a drug users’ household.” (Check out the Black Poppy website
for these and many other amusements.)
Today, Black Poppy has a subscriber base of about 7,000 readers, but O’Mara estimates that an additional four people read each copy. Issues are published “when we can afford it, basically,” she says. “It used to be two issues a year, but we nearly folded recently because I got sick.”
Keeping the Poppy growing does not come cheap: each 40-page glossy issue costs about £5,000 ($8,000) to produce. A recent deal with the Exchange Supplies, an online company that markets the “never share” syringe as well as a series of harm-reduction publications, threw O’Mara a much-needed lifeline. Funding from yhe Exchange helps cover printing and distribution costs “Basically they pay for it upfront, and we pay them back through sales,” she says. “We give out free copies to unemployed drug users, but everybody else pays £3.50 [$5.65]. That’s what keeps us running.”
Run out of a studio in London’s trendy Clapham neighborhood by a small but constantly shifting group of volunteers, bringing each issue of Black Poppy to life entails complications and dramas beyond the usual missed deadlines and diva personalities. “The people who work with us all have had their own drug issues,” O’Mara says. “This helps us, but can also make things hard. Sometimes people need to take time out to deal with their own dramas, as you can imagine.”
I got my own start in writing when Black Poppy published my obituary for Dee Dee Ramone (now in the “Hall of Fame”) back in 2002; when I was a methadone patient in London, O’Mara was a well-known face on the London scene, a tireless campaigner for drug users rights. I saw what a vital Black Poppy played in fostering a sense of community among heroin addicts and crack users, a group that most people dismiss as disposable social outcasts.
While O’Mara has taken a great deal of criticism from critics over the years, it’s the positive reaction from grateful readers that keeps her focused on her mission. “BP has been a lifesaver, not just because of the stuff about drug safety but because it gives you a sense that you’re not alone—there are others who understand what you’re going through,” says Gian, a 33-year-old self-described “lifelong addict” from Manchester, England, and faithful reader since BP’s inception.
O’Mara agrees. “I know we’re on the side of what's right,” she says.
Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including
Digging the Vein and
Down and Out on Murder Mile and
Sick City. He is the co-author of the
New York Times bestseller
Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the
Los Angeles Times bestseller
Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie). He lives in New York with his wife and daughter. O'Neill also interviewed Jerry Stahl and argued against abstinence for The Fix.