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The Depiction of Drugs in Films and Its Effects on People

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Since drugs have been shown in films, people have had strong opinions about if this is okay to do. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan once said “the film industry should be part of the solution, not part of the problem”. The Depiction of drugs in films have influenced the general population in both positive and negative ways.

Ever since the beginning of film the way drugs have been depicted in movies has changed and evolved throughout each era of film. It had first begun with the silent era (1900-1920). Thomas Edison set the scene and made the first ever drug related movie called Chinese Opium Den​ in 1894. The Silent Era mostly depicted drugs in a more positive and comedic light because in this time, drugs have not been studied as much and most people did not know of their harmful effects yet. During this time, drugs were not controlled by the government or the film industry at all. In fact, the New York Film Academy said that “Hollywood first officially dealt with drugs in films in 1921 by advising against films that show ‘the use of narcotics’ ”.

The next era of film was the production code era from 1930-1950’s. This is when more laws were passed in which made drugs be viewed in a more negative light. For example, the Motion Picture Production Code was passed by Motion Pictures in 1930. This made it so that films were required to be approved before they could be released to the general public. After the production code was passed, Hollywood started to only show anti-drugs movies and entered an “exploitation phase”. Many people relied on movies and tv shows to inform the public about drugs.

As we enter the Times Are Changing Era, the portrayal of drugs evolved again. This time, instead of everyone being absolutely scared of drugs and the film industry being totally one sided, we began to look at the negative effects of being an addict and informing and educating the public of realistic situations. “While social unrest built up throughout the decade, it was only near the end of the 60’s that drugs began to be portrayed differently and not just negatively in film”. By the 1970’s, cocaine became a more accepted “upper class” drug and thus became more desired.

As the title of this era implies, The Just Say No Era in the 1980’s was a huge time in which many were advised to be against drugs and addiction and had a mostly negative connotation. This was shown on every form of media. For example, as cocaine was on an uprise in the United States, films shifted their focus and increased the amount of films that showed the effects of cocaine. There was even a “decline of popular use and film depictions of marijuana”.

Modern Film Cinema (1990-2010’s) was the most neutral era for drugs depicted in film ever. It did not lean to one side more than the other. “With the Clinton administration and Generation X signaling a new permissiveness toward drug use, drug films became more common and neutral in their depictions, moving away from negatively moralizing toward more nuanced stories”. As drugs and addiction in films became more neutral, there has been a mix of films both advocating and informing people about drugs.

The frequency of drugs shown in films differs depending on the type of drug and trends in society. For example, The use of ecstasy in films expanded as rave culture became more popular. Tobacco has also been huge in the film industry. Tobacco is actually depicted in 90 percent of R rated movies and three fourths of G, PG, and PG13 movies between 1996 and 2004. Cannabis is another common drug that is often shown in films with both negative and positive outcomes. The statistics of Cannabis in films is mostly even in both a neutral light and no consequences and a positive light. Drugs in movies have an influence in what happens in the real world. For example, “In 2000’s meth usage declined where meth being in films raised”. In the movie ​Trainspotting​, drugs and addiction are being shown throughout the entire movie. It is made clear that the characters have a strong addiction and are aware of how bad it actually is and how it is affecting their life. Although they don’t seem to really care. Choose life, choose a job, choose a career, choose a family… Choose your future, choose life. But why would I want to do such a thing? I chose not to choose life. I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you got heroin” (​Trainspotting​).

This quote by Renton shows the audience two different paths they could take in their lives, your future or drugs. This makes the audience think about the best option to choose. Renton is addicted to heroin and is having a hard time trying to come clean. “In junkie limbo right now. Too ill to sleep, too tired to stay awake. But the sickness is on its way. Sweat, chills, nausea, pain and craving” (​Trainspotting​). Another character by the name Tommy goes from having a good life with goals, but ruins his it when he turns to heroine and you see his entire life go upside down. Although the film shows both the highs and lows. Sometimes the characters are struggling, and other times they are having the time of their lives. “When you take drugs you have a fucking great time. Unless you’re very unlucky. We wanted the film to capture that” (Byrne). Throughout time, drug use in movies affected and influenced the general population in both positive and negative ways. As we advance in technology and the production of movies, films become more accessible to the general public through DVDs and multiple different online sources. Which in turn affects people’s decisions as “there is convincing evidence that the entertainment media influences behavior”.

There is also the films that show drugs in a negative light and change the audience’s perspective on how addiction can damage your life. “There’s half of the film which is obviously considerably darker. If you prolong the experience with drugs, your life will darken. The film doesn’t try to hide that” (Byrne). Through ​Trainspotting’s​ “disgusting imagery” the movie has made an impact on the rate of drug addicts according to a swedish study led by Dr Hasantha Gunasekera. ​Requiem for a dream​ was an intense movie that showed the lives of four different people that were addicted to drugs. The films storyline and cinematography was so jarring that it made a lasting impression on so many people. “In today’s world it is very hard to create images and ideas that people remember more than right in the moment so you want to create an experience that lasts. That usually has to be a pretty intense journey” (Aronofsky). “People were telling me that I raped them, people threw up, there was an ambulance in toronto when we screened it at the toronto film festival because a guy had heart palpitations” (Aronofsky). The movie also showed how far each character would go to get their fix. To finish the film with a powerful ending, the audience was left with four scenes that showed how the characters actions have affected them. Sara is in a mental ward, Harry ends up with his arm amputated, Marian turns to prostitution, and Tyrone is in jail (​Requiem​).

Although some people believe that the media and movies are responsible for informing the public about drug safety, others believe that it is not the filmmakers responsibility to do so. Edward Lawrenson said “ I dont think its the role of the film industry to educate the public about public health”. Dr Hasantha Gunasekera, ignolished this as well. Saying that besides his studies he knows that it’s not the film industry’s job to worry about this. And that movies are there to focus on their art in creating and entertaining others and to make money.

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Heroin Epidemic In Britain In The Movie Trainspotting. (2022, December 07). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 1, 2023, from
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