Cinema’s Most Inaccurate Depictions of Drug Use

Hollywood’s got drug problems.

For reasons unbeknownst to me, most Hollywood filmmakers don’t seem to know how to accurately portray the intravenous injection of drugs. Don’t get me wrong, they’ve got the basics pretty much correct (1-put drugs in spoon, 2-put water on drugs, 3-look sexy as f*ck, 4-suck watery drugs into needle, 5-inject drugs into sexy arm, 6- look even more sexy whilst in the throes of drug-fueled anguish/ecstasy). But as someone who spent a few years fiercely “researching” IV drugs (clean now for four years), I can’t help but be perturbed by all of the inaccuracies, exaggerations and tropes present in many of Hollywood’s most praised drug movies. I have compiled a list of my favorite IV drug (and some non-IV drug) inaccuracies in my four favorite drug dramas. I’m sure some other IV drug users will sound-off in opposition to my list, but keep in mind that we are all junkies and are not to be trusted.


This error may seem nit-picky to most people, but ask any opiate addict on the street (don’t really) and they’ll tell you that this oversight constitutes a major gaffe in Darren Aronofsky’s ultra-stylistic jump-cut drug-use mini-montages (hyphen-party!).

Heroin does not dilate your pupils! In fact, it does the exact opposite. Your pupils become restricted and are often described as “pinned out” because they can be as small as pinpoints and, let’s face it, that’s kind of poetic in a emo kid sort of way. Cocaine, speed, MDMA- these are the drugs tend to create those infamous dilated “f*ck-you-dad-I’m-on-hella-drugs-lets-dance-and-discuss-politics-and-definitely-f*ck-but-first-where-is-Alan-he-has-my-drugs-hashtag-yolo” eyes that you might have seen at a rave or your average college party. But opiate addicts wear a subtler and, in my opinion, more distinguished looking pupil that says “I’d totally finish writing this novel if I could just stop nodding out between cigarettes.” Pinned out pupils are even more apparent in people with lighter colored irises, as the pupil restriction makes the person’s eye color much more vibrant (See: pretty much any picture of Kurt Cobain after 1992.) So next time you see someone with beautiful ocean blue eyes, remember they’re probably on heroin.

This is one of the more gruesome aspects of IV drug use. The threat of a collapsed vein is definitely something that would keep most people from ever attempting to self-inject illicit substances. In Requiem for a Dream, Harry Goldfarb keeps injecting drugs into his vein over and over until it finally collapses, leaving him with only his one arm and his sexiness to keep him company.

It’s not that I believe collapsed veins aren’t a real threat, it’s that no one injects into the exact same spot multiple times in a row. Especially not into the same abscess-infected area when there are clearly multiple fresh veins adjacent to the abscess. In fact, he has a whole other arm! That’s like junkie Christmas. And if you look at Harry closely throughout the film, you can clearly see plenty of fresh, untapped veins all plump and bulging out of his lean, pale, vascular appendage. Yet he chooses the exact same spot to inject? No goddamn way. Junkies poke at fresh veins with the obsessive-compulsive tenacity of a child popping bubble wrap.

I think what really irks me about Harry Goldfarb’s lack of common sense is that it’s very insulting to junkies. People might think “well of course he lacks common sense, he’s a heroin addict,” but this is an egregious misrepresentation of junkies by-and-large. They might not be able to manage most things in their lives, but they are quite adept at finding and correctly using heroin. I assert that every IV drug user in the world could easily be a certified phlebotomist if they only had any other ambitions outside of using IV drugs.

There is something sexy about the self-flagellation inherent in every step of the IV drug process. Slapping yourself, choking-out your arm with a tourniquet, stabbing yourself with a needle – the self-mutilation aspect of it appeals to the pre-teen goth girl in all of us.

Movies with a heroin injection scene love to showcase vigorous vein slapping as an integral part of the process. It’s purpose is supposedly to raise the vein, keeping it from rolling around and thus making it easier to inject. While finding a vein is quite important if you are intending to push drugs inside of it, Trainspotting gets ridiculous with the volume of vein slapping. A few minutes into the film there is a scene where Sick Boy is readying Allison for injection. He slaps her vein almost fifty times in twenty seconds before finally injecting her with that sweet Scottish skag. In my opinion, more than three slaps and it’s veering on assault and battery.

Here’s my issue: if you’ve already got veins protruding from your arm there is no point to slapping them. That’s not to say that there is absolutely no point in doing it or that no one does it. I’m sure many people have trouble finding or hitting a vein and perhaps vein slapping is quite necessary for these unfortunates. However, in Trainspotting and many other Hollywood drug dramas, the main junkie characters always seem to have a very low body fat percentage and are thus quite vascular. When you’ve got veins already protruding, there’s really no need for any, let alone fifty slaps to the vein. Sure, half the fun of doing IV drugs is the ritual and raising the vein is certainly part of that. But in reality, the tourniquet (or tourniquet substitute, like a belt or shoelace) does most of the vein raising work. And once you’ve been at IV-ing drugs for a while, vein slapping eventually falls by the wayside as it is really just a novelty. But, yes, it’s sexy as f*ck.

No major Hollywood movie in the last 20 years is more confused about how drugs work than Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. I saw this film before I started doing hard drugs and I remember being quite enamored by the scene where Topher Grace teaches Erika Christensen how to make freebase. So enamored that years later I decided to try out the Eric Foreman method of smoking cocaine for myself. And I can tell you first hand, it does NOT work very well.

In the scene, you see Topher pour water onto what I can only assume is cocaine (even though both characters’ reaction to the drugs makes it seem more like an opiate), he heats up the drug water in a classic scuffed-up drug spoon that looks like he purchased it in the heroin spoon aisle at Hot Topic, he puts the bubbling drug solution onto tinfoil and heats it up some more as Erika Christensen sucks the smoke through a straw.

Now, I’m no scientist but I like to think I have some good sense when it comes to drugs, even at the tender age of 16. I remember heating up the solution in a spoon with my tinfoil at the ready and then realizing “hey, this tinfoil step seems a bit redundant.” It was at that point when I realized that maybe Steven Soderbergh didn’t have my best interests in mind when he shot that makeshift tutorial. Even with my suspicions, I carried on with the method. I can only describe what happened next as the origins of my disillusionment with the integrity of the media. The solution evaporated, as water does when it is heated, and I was left trying to figure out if it had worked or not. I spent the next 30 minutes in my room repeating the mantra “I think I feel something” which was just me being in denial of the fact that Hollywood lied to me. After that, I took to the internet for tips on how to actually make freebase and it turned out to be a much more complicated affair than the movie Traffic had lead me to believe. It wouldn’t be long after that experience that I would decide to IV heroin for the first time. Thanks a lot, Topher.

Before I start lambasting Werner Herzog’s re-envisioning of Bad Lieutenant, I want to first praise the original film as the most accurate representation of drug use and drug-induced hysteria that I have ever seen in film. Every problem that I have listed thus far with Trainspotting, Requiem, and Traffic, were all done correctly in the film Bad Lieutenant. From pupils, to veins, to freebasing, it seems like every last detail was thoroughly researched, almost as if the point of the entire film was to be the first Hollywood movie to do drugs correctly. With that in mind, I decided to see if the Herzog film matched the intense accuracy of it’s predecessor. It doesn’t, almost to a cartoonish degree.

There are so many drug inaccuracies in this film that it sort of feels deliberate. From the fact that his “lucky crack pipe” is a chillum (commonly used for smoking weed), to the fact that he spends most of the film snorting coke off of his fist (when there are plenty of smooth surfaces around him), there are just too many issues to write about so here is a broad overview with some choice screen shots and animated gifs.

This… is the sloppiest way of snorting cocaine that I’ve ever seen. He might as well just chuck a handful of coke towards his face, he’d get the same result. And this is not an isolated incident. He does this 4 other times in the movie. It’s hilariously absurd… at least, to anyone who has tried cocaine.

I cannot claim to be an expert on crack or crack paraphernalia, but I have smoked weed out of what Werner Herzog thinks a crack pipe looks like. When the Bad Lt detains this lovely young crack fiend, he finds a pipe that looks a chillum and asks her for “the rock.” Lo and behold, turns out she does have some crack rock on on her person and they proceed to blast-off (smoke crack) and bang (fornicate) right there in the parking lot. However unlikely it seems to me that they would be smoking crack out of this pipe, I was able to temporarily suspend my disbelief. That is until this next scene….

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie get weed wrong before. In this scene, the Bad Lt pulls over a college football star and finds this oddly shaped black bag of “weed” and uses the threat of arrest to blackmail him. At this point in the film, it finally became clear that Herzog made this movie specifically to f*ck with me.

F*ck you, Werner Herzog.