Parks: Denormalizing Drug Use

Hollywood’s damage goes further than its silent condonation of sexual assault.

by Isabel Parks | 2/22/18 1:15am

Americans can no longer deny the opioid epidemic infecting our nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of fatal overdoses involving opioids quadrupled from 2000 to 2016, causing the deaths of 115 Americans per day, on average. As we enter 2018, this number continues to increase, with health news website STAT News’ expert panel forecasting that opioid overdoses could potentially kill 250 Americans a day in the near future. STAT News correspondent Max Blau put the data into perspective: If this increase in fatal opioid overdoses occurs, then “opioids could kill nearly as many Americans in a decade as HIV [and] AIDS [have] killed since that epidemic began in the early 1980s.”

Though responsible for ­more than 42,000 deaths — 66 percent of fatal overdoses in 2016 — opioids are not the only drugs on the rise. Fatal overdoses of cocaine and psychostimulants have also spiked, with 10,619 cocaine deaths and 7,663 psychostimulant deaths at the end of 2016 in contrast with 6,986 cocaine and 5,922 psychostimulant deaths at the end of 2015. As horrifying as these statistics may be, they pale in comparison to the number of Americans still alive and suffering under the physical and psychological torture of addiction.

While it may not be obvious, Hollywood does affect drug addiction. Beyond the fatal overdoses of many beloved and talented artists, Hollywood plays a great role in the normalization of drugs. Barring a dip in the 1980s when former First Lady Nancy Reagan launched her “Just Say No” drug awareness campaign, the number of movies in which drugs appear has increased with every decade. From the 1930s to the 1950s, only 28 movies contained drug use. This number soared to 139 movies in the 1960s and 1970s, before falling again to 52 movies during the 1980s. From the 1990s to 2015, 546 movies contained drug use, nearly 20 times more than movies made in the 1930s and 1950s, almost 11 times more than movies made in the 1980s and nearly four times more than movies made in the 1960s to 1970s. Hollywood is responsible for increased cinematic exposure of drug-related narratives to Americans.

Hollywood’s presentation of drugs is often problematic, as evidenced by movies like “21 Jump Street” and “22 Jump Street.” Even though these movies concern two undercover policemen looking to take down various drug rings, they ironically spin drug use in a more positive light in an effort to be funny. For example, in “21 Jump Street,” the policemen are forced to consume the very drugs they are supposed to remove from the streets. What follows is a montage of the two men giggling and functioning as best they can in a loopy but confident state of mind. Not only are the negative consequences of drugs not shown, but the laughter of the audience evokes positive associations with the drug use on screen, thereby reducing resistance. Another problem with “21 Jump Street” and “22 Jump Street” lies with the villains of the stories. The drug suppliers in both the original movie and its sequel are caricatural and amusing, when in reality, many drug suppliers may be violent and consumed by addiction.

Hollywood has long been accused of glamorizing suicide, mental disorders and eating disorders. Netflix show “13 Reasons Why” is one example. Criticized for making intrigue out of a girl’s decision to end her life, its release was associated with a spike in Google searches about suicide and suicidal ideation. Just as Hollywood romanticizes crippling depression which can rob victims of interest in their lives, Hollywood films glamorize drug use to create drama and comedic material without considering the effect on the audience. After all, drugs can not only mentally, physically and economically ruin their users, they can also take those users away from loving family members and friends.

If people want to combat the pervasive drug epidemic responsible for the suffering — and often death — of those dear to them, they need to first examine their own subconscious feelings towards drugs. Do they accept that everyone does them as our television shows and movies often suggest? Do they think that drug use is comedic or safe to do? The moment people begin thinking that drugs are normal and innocuous is the moment society has failed those who are about to take their last dose of an illegal drug.

In order to fight this drug crisis, people need to acknowledge the effect that Hollywood has had in normalizing perceptions of drugs. People need to demand that Hollywood producers and content managers think about their responsibilities to their viewers — especially to impressionable youths and teenagers — and that they react to the damage they have indirectly caused. Illicit drugs should never be seen as normal.

Parks is a member of the Class of 2020.

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