An estimated 18.9 million Americans abuse drugs and alcohol every year, which is why it’s not surprising that dozens of movies have plots surrounding substance abuse and addiction. Some movies paint drug use in a fun, positive light, while others deliver a more accurate, disturbing view of addiction. Though Hollywood films do tend to glorify drug use for the sake of entertainment, many believe that these films are one of the many driving factors behind the nation’s high addiction rates.
Drugs and alcohol have been featured in movies since the early 1900s when films were silent. The number of films featuring drug use increased gradually through the decades until the 1980s, when the “Just Say No” campaign increased public awareness about the dangers surrounding drug use. Drugs began showing up in movies again more frequently during the 1990s and continue to become more prevalent with each passing year.
Hollywood does a terrific job of glorifying the “highs” and euphoria associated with drug use, yet very few films exist that show viewers the full aftermath of addiction. Furthermore, many films inaccurately portray the effects of drugs and alcohol and fail to show how substance abuse and addiction can affect one’s livelihood long after the camera stops rolling. In reality, the characters in these movies who struggle with addiction are only just actors, and not real people struggling with substance abuse.
Here’s a close look at the top 10 drug addiction movies, and how each of these movies glorifies drug and alcohol use.
1. Scarface (1983)
Considered by critics as one of the best mob films ever released in Hollywood, Scarface tells the story of a Cuban refugee named Tony Montana who rises to power as the head of a drug cartel in Miami during the 1980s. Montana, played by Al Pacino, snorts cocaine throughout the entire movie, including at the end just moments before the infamous drug kingpin is gunned down. Scarface was written by Oliver Stone, who revealed in recent years that he wrote the movie as a way to cope with his own personal struggles surrounding cocaine addiction.
As one of the most notorious gangsters in Hollywood movie history, Montana makes cocaine use seem necessary to achieve great power and influence in Miami’s drug trafficking ring. While the ending of Scarface isn’t exactly a happy one, viewers can surmise that cocaine was partly responsible for Montana’s rise to the top.
2. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
This drama film, which is also classified a black comedy, is based on the life of Jordan Belfort — a wealthy stockbroker who struggles with drug addiction and eventually ends up in jail for fraud. Belfort’s top drugs of choice are cocaine, alcohol, and prescription drugs — all of which he abuses off and on throughout the movie. Many critics viewed The Wolf of Wall Street as an irresponsible glorification of substance abuse and addiction, though Leonardo DiCaprio — the actor who played Belfort — argues that the film in no way glorifies the character’s lifestyle as depicted in the film.
The Wolf of Wall Street inaccurately demonstrates that one has the potential to be outrageously financially successful when abusing drugs and alcohol, and suffering from addiction. Some viewers even say the film glorifies sex addiction in addition to substance abuse.
3. Pineapple Express (2008)
Named after a real cannabis strain, Pineapple Express is considered one of the top movies about drug addiction that glamorize marijuana use. Classified an action-comedy, Pineapple Express is about a process server and his marijuana dealer on the run from hitmen and police after witnessing the death of a Chinese drug lord. Marijuana is mentioned a whopping 69 times in Pineapple Express, which is considered the #1 stoner movie based on mentions of marijuana alone.
Movie critics say that Pineapple Express paints marijuana use in a humorous light, and fails to show audiences how marijuana addiction can have a serious, negative impact on one’s overall quality of life. At the beginning of this movie, process server Dale Denton — played by Seth Rogen — goes on a tirade about the legalization of marijuana, saying “everyone likes smoking weed,” and that the drug enhances sex, food, and music. Critics also add that Pineapple Express influenced a countless number of aspiring marijuana smokers to try the drug after having watched the movie.
4. Trainspotting (1996)
This drama that borders on black comedy follows the life of Mark Renton — a heroin addict who spends his days shooting up the illicit opiate in his drug dealer’s apartment along with several friends. Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, struggles to overcome addiction throughout the movie but continues getting pulled into his former lifestyle by negative influences. Trainspotting grossed $16.4 million in North America, but made $72 million internationally and was the highest-grossing British film of 1996.
While Trainspotting does show the ups and downs of overcoming heroin use, the film’s dark humor also romanticizes drug use to a degree and features long monologues from Renton’s character about the satisfying euphoria associated with heroin use. For instance, Renton explains that multiplying your best sexual orgasm by 1,000 fails to come close to the euphoria produced by heroin — a statement highly prone to influencing those unfamiliar with the effects of heroin to experiment with drug use.
5. Blow (2001)
Blow is based on real-life stories about an American cocaine smuggler named George Jung, played by Johnny Depp. As the son of a struggling business owner who goes bankrupt, Depp vows he will never grow up to be poor like his father. Jung starts dealing marijuana during the 1960s but is caught and incarcerated. While in prison, Jung learns about the profit margins involved with dealing cocaine and immediately starts trafficking cocaine into America following his prison sentence. At the end of the movie, Jung is sentenced to 60 years at Otisville Correctional Facility in upstate New York and never sees his daughter again.
Since Blow features Jung spending ample amounts of time in prison, the movie fails to glorify cocaine use in the way many viewers would expect. However, Blow does glamorize the trafficking and sale of drugs, considering Jung’s daily profits from cocaine far exceed those made by the average person.
6. Traffic (2000)
This crime drama directed by Steven Soderbergh was released at the same time Washington was raising public awareness surrounding the War on Drugs. The film examines drug trafficking from the perspectives of a wide range of characters all involved in trafficking — including drug users, law enforcement, politicians, and the traffickers themselves. All characters’ stories are linked with one another in some way, though many of these characters do not interact with each other in the film.
Former addiction patients who have seen Traffic say that the movie does a great job glamorizing cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin use since the scenes depicted on film do not reflect real-life drug addiction. One viewer in particular said that Traffic glosses over the ravages of drug use, and fails to show the pain associated with drug withdrawal. Another long-term heroin user argued that the heroin addict in Traffic looked far too healthy and that real-life heroin users often suffer from poor health and bad personal hygiene.
On the other side of the spectrum, an agent from the DEA said Traffic accurately captures the challenges law enforcement faces in regards to drug trafficking, but that the drug cartel in Mexico is far scarier in real life than depicted onscreen. The agent also related that torture scenes in Traffic involving the drug cartel were accurate and that the Tijuana police are often part of an organized crime group in real life and not usually “the good guys” as shown in the movie.
7. Superbad (2007)
Superbad follows two high school seniors portrayed by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera who plan on attending a party so they can get drunk and lose their virginity before graduating. Drugs and alcohol are mentioned 172 times in Superbad, which features more mentions about drugs and alcohol than any other movie in Hollywood. Superbad is one of countless “teen party” movies in which drug and alcohol use are integral to the main plot and depicted as being among the coolest, most fun activities one can do in high school.
Sadly, many critics hail Superbad as one of Hollywood’s greatest comedies but fail to address how the film glamorizes alcohol use among teens. Superbad makes it seem as though getting drunk and losing one’s virginity is the norm among American high school students about to graduate, and features a plot highly similar to other teen party movies such as Can’t Hardly Wait and American Pie.
8. Basketball Diaries (1995)
This crime-drama biography is based on the life of Jim Carroll — a young man with a promising future career as a basketball superstar who loses himself to heroin addiction. Carroll, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, skips school with his friends to use marijuana regularly but tries cocaine for the first time at a party. After coming down from his cocaine high, Carroll turns to prescription drugs, and then heroin in an effort to achieve drug-induced euphoria.
Many say that Basketball Diaries is an accurate portrayal of drug addiction, and does an effective job of raising anti-drug awareness. Scenes of Carroll going through heroin withdrawal are realistic, as well as those depicting Carroll struggling with heroin cravings. Throughout the movie, Carroll suffers a range of major life problems brought on by addiction, including being thrown off the basketball team, being expelled from school, and going to prison for possession of narcotics and related crimes.
9. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
This black-comedy adventure film stars Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke and Benicio del Toro as Dr. Gonzo — a journalist and his lawyer who travel to Vegas for a journalism project, but get caught up in psychedelic drug use while in Sin City. Marijuana and cocaine use are prominent in this Hunter S. Thompson adaptation, but psychedelic drugs including LSD and Ecstasy are the characters’ top substances of choice.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is widely regarded as a cult classic, but considered to be vulgar, unorthodox, and pro-drug use by many viewers. This surreal film is packed with descriptive and alluring scenes featuring drug use, which eventually lead to violence, car accidents, and wild, psychedelic hallucinations. Many say this movie glorifies drug use in that it makes drug use look bizarre, fun, and comical.
10. Requiem For A Dream (2000)
This intense drama stars Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans as four drug addicts whose livelihoods become shattered due to drug dependence. Throughout the movie, Sara Goldfarb, played by Burstyn, becomes addicted to diet pills in the form of amphetamines and eventually winds up in a psychiatric treatment ward due to drug-induced psychosis. Goldfarb’s son Harry, who is played by Leto, works with his best friend Tyrone (Wayans) and girlfriend Marion (Connelly) to expand their drug sales operation so they can continue supporting their heroin addiction.
Requiem for a Dream is considered one of the dirtiest, grittiest Hollywood depictions of drug addiction. Though each character faces his and her own downfall associated with drug abuse at the end of the movie, the film still manages to capture drug use in a certain romantic light. For instance, Harry and Marion seem most in love with another when using heroin and cocaine throughout most of the movie, but are willing to do things to compromise their relationship for the sake of obtaining more heroin.
The Importance of Seeking Addiction Treatment
Movies about drug and alcohol use can be highly influential, especially for children, teens, and young adults. An important factor to remember when viewing any movie involving drug use is that the film is intended for entertainment purposes only and that actors and actresses spend weeks, months, and sometimes years preparing for their roles. Drug abuse and addiction are extremely different in real life than in the movies, and often do not lead to financial success, power, or happiness as commonly depicted onscreen.
Addiction treatment can help you or your loved one overcome physical dependency on drugs and alcohol, as well as any psychological factors that may be driving your addiction. Just as depicted in many movies, alcohol and drug abuse can lead to problems with your health, relationships, finances, education, and career, and can even lead to incarceration. But seeking treatment at any stage of addiction can help you overcome and repair these problems, or avoid these problems completely.