What We Can Learn From Addiction in Popular Culture

Written By Jeff Mahre BA MFA MLIS - June 7th, 2018
What We Can Learn From Addiction in Popular Culture

Article Contents

Popular culture has finally been responding to the lack of accurate portrayals of drug addiction that have been apparent in the media, for well, forever. In the past couple years, books, movies and music have begun to reflect the themes of chemical dependency and addiction that have plagued artists for years. However, this wasn’t always the case. Many movies and works of art in the past have served to further the stigma of drug addiction, and reinforce the widely believed falsehood that recovery isn’t possible.

Probably the largest example of media propagating falsehoods surrounding drug use is Reefer Madness, a 1936 propaganda film created to warn the American public about the dangers of marijuana. However, the film was totally inaccurate, suggesting that such things as a hit and run accident, manslaughter, suicide, rape, hallucinations and insanity ensued first time marijuana usage. The film gained new traction in the early 1970s when it was used as a satire among those who advocated for marijuana policy change. The film totally epitomizes the cluelessness behind the drug demonization that has occurred in this country for years.

These days films are being made that showcase the dangers of drugs, but in a more realistic, less pandering way. Shows such as Nurse Jackie, Vinyl and Love use addiction as their primary themes and plot devices. However, the shows do a good job of accurately depicting the struggles of addiction. They showcase addicts as pretty regular people who are just dealing with a terrible disease. Best of all, they offer recovery as a hopeful option, which has been a failing of addiction-centered movies in the past, such as Requiem For A Dream, which does a good job of showing the torture and insanity of drug addiction, but offers little hope for those involved.

Some movies have gone a step further and have showcased the treatment process on film. Movies like 28 Days and Clean and Sober have represented the power of recovery and how possible it is, even in the face of struggle and pain.

In terms of books, there are a large variety of addiction memoirs that have helped to inspire addicted readers. One such is Dry, written by famous memoirist Augusten Burroughs. With his trademark wit and laugh out loud humor, Burroughs paints the story of how he developed an alcohol abuse disorder and how his co-workers insisted he be sent to rehab. After rehab, Burroughs describes the trials and tribulations of early recovery in shocking accuracy. Furthermore, Burroughs describes a painful relapse, but writes without pretense, judgement or dishonesty.

So do these advances in recovery related media serve as an indicator of broader change? Well, they are occurring during a time in which public opinion, and even policy, surrounding addiction is beginning to change. Non-violent offenders with drug-related crimes are increasingly being given the option of attending treatment versus jail. Last year, the Justice Department released 6,000 non-violent drug offenders, two thirds of whom were placed into halfway houses and eventually put on supervised release. Furthermore, during Obama’s presidency, he granted clemency to nearly 100 non-violent drug offenders.

While movies and books are a good source of inspiration, they can’t be the only tool in your toolbox in terms of recovery. This is where addiction treatment and counseling comes in.

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.