7 Sensational Drug Documentaries

“I think it's inevitable that people will come to find the documentary a more compelling and more important kind of film than fiction,” Albert Maysles—the documentarian who created, with his brother David, legendary films like Grey Gardens andGimmie Shelter—once famously remarked. He went on to explain that, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you're really engaged with a person going through real life experiences. So for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

Drug docs (much like addiction memoirs) have become a cottage industry in recent years: flicking around cable TV gives the impression that entire channels are devoted to capturing the minutiae of modern drug culture. The worst efforts feel like a squalid wallow in other people’s misery—an experience as soulless as those infamous Victorian asylums where the public paid a penny to gawp at the inmates. But the best can teach us something, spur us to action and sometimes leave us breathless.

Here are seven of my favorites. I’ve tried to avoid more obvious candidates like Cocaine Cowboys and instead pick out some less familiar examples—which you might enjoy discovering as much as I did.


This documentary focuses on the lives of a group of young heroin addicts in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, in the mid-to-late '90s. It was produced by HBO, who have form in creating this kind of uncompromising grim-realism—Dope Sick Love being another example. What gives Black Tar Heroin its edge, however, is its characters. Despite their almost unbearably sad circumstances, director Steven Okazaki never once reduces his subjects to junkie stereotypes. You get sucked into their world of scoring, tricking and overdosing as the sense of impending tragedy mounts. The story of Jake—a young hustler who transforms into a hollowed-out, HIV-ravaged shadow of his former self by the end of the movie—is profoundly moving. And a bleak, lo-fi soundtrack by the likes of Cat Power and Tanya Donnelly adds to the stark visuals. By the time the credits roll, you're left in pieces, wondering what on earth will become of these seemingly-doomed youths: as the 2004 update on the special edition DVDconfirmed, most of them had little light at the end of their personal tunnels.

Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street (clip: Jake's story)


Canadian documentarian Brett Harvey used marijuana prohibition as the starting point for his smart and provocative film—but in the end it was about so much more. A righteous indictment of the futility of marijuana prohibition, it touches upon the ruined lives, civil rights infringements and political corruption that form the true legacy of the modern war on drugs. Featuring interviewees like Tommy ChongJoe Rogan and Jack A. ColeThe Union explores the myriad political and financial reasons why the US government is so determined to keep fighting an unwinnable war, despite the human and economic costs. And the best part? The whole film is available to watch, for free, on YouTube, with the full blessing of the producers.

The Union: The Business Behind Getting High (trailer)


“Hard to watch” is a description often applied to director Penny Woolcock’s hour-long Channel 4 documentary. There’s no denying that this amazing slice of life—filmed inside a British “wet house,” where homeless alcoholics are permitted to live while continuing to drink—is tough going at times. I caught this one when it first aired, and the fact that so many moments have stayed with me over the intervening years is testimony to its haunting power. One man recounts being set on fire by a group of thugs while sleeping rough. One of the few women in the house, “Jamie Dodger,” shakes and twitches while huffing on a bag of glue. Snaggle-toothed old men break into song, their bulbous noses stained purple by broken blood vessels, before collapsing into fits of delirium tremens. Equally incredible is the unblinking professionalism of the facility's staff, as they go about their day administering medicine and cleaning up after their barely-functioning charges. While some may be tempted to dismiss The Wet House as misery-porn, it’s actually a film that humanizes the often-hidden faces of homelessness and alcoholism. The subjects are often seen bleary-eyed, shaking, and making little sense—but once in a while a moment of unexpected clarity shines through the addled confusion. We get a fleeting glimpses of who these broken people used to be before alcohol ravaged them totally, and it’s during these scenes that the real tragedy of their situation is clearest. This is a rare, uncensored look into unchecked addiction’s tragic endgame.

The Wet House (clip)


While The Union examined the drug war with a serious, almost scholarly tone, Kevin Booth tackles the subject with the anger and bluster of Michael Moore on crack. An unapologetic slice of rabble-rousing propaganda, Booth’s documentary skewers the American approach to the war on drugs with the help of talking heads like Jello BiafraRalph NadarGary Johnsonand the ever-busy Tommy Chong—who seems to have been working non-stop to get weed legalized ever since the Bush administration turned him into a political prisoner. On the other side of the aisle, prohibitionists like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and Drug Free America’s Calvina Fay are given just enough rope to hang themselves. Yes, some people have criticized this film for being too strident, and others wonder why the opinion of an ex-crack dealer like Freeway Ricky Ross matters. But taken for the full-blooded piece of pamphleteering that it is, American Drug War remains compelling.

American Drug War: The Last White Hope (trailer)


This gritty and relentless film packs a huge wallop into only 40 minutes. Following the daily routine of 29-year old Junior Rios as he tries to sustain his $200 dollar-a-day dope habit against the post-apocalyptic backdrop of the early-'80s South Bronx, director Jon Alpert records the degradation and downward spiral of New York's most neglected borough just as much as he meditates on Rios’s unhappy life. We follow him from the roofs of abandoned buildings, where he rips away antennas to sell for scrap, to his tiny tenement apartment, where his children beg him not to use heroin any more. Winding up in a state-run rehab, he is yelled at by counselors, ordered to clean toilets, and finally runs away. Rios is a compelling anti-hero—charismatic and deadpan as he lays his sad life bare for Alpert’s camera. Beautifully shot,Junkie Junior will hold you spellbound all the way to its chilling denouement.

The Life of Junkie Junior (trailer)


This fascinating journey into a field of addiction research that's far from the mainstream focuses on a hallucinogenic substance derived from the root of the African Tabernanthe iboga plant and highly revered in shamanistic circles. Since the '60s, Ibogaine advocates have claimed that ingesting it can cure addiction. Dutch filmmaker Benjamin De Leonen became interested in the Ibogaine story as a university student, after reading an article in a magazine. Fascinated by the spiritual and cultural background of the plant—and also by Big Pharma's resistance to it—he dedicated himself to producing this documentary. Undoubtedly the fullest exploration of Ibogaine treatment ever screened, the result is in-depth in some areas, but scant in others. Unfortunately Deleonon couldn't convince any representatives of the pharmaceutical companies that have stonewalled on Ibogaine research to talk on camera—they preferred to issue terse “no comments” instead. But the compelling testimony of ex-addicts who say Ibogaine helped them, a rare peek into an Ibogaine treatment, and footage of a traditional Bwiti ritual are major compensation for the lack of a scientific component. You're left with some provocative questions: is pharma companies' resistance to Ibogaine rooted in the fact that it's a psychoactive substance? Or do they have a financial imperative to stop the proliferation of a natural substance that offers a cure, as opposed to the profitable and never-ending addiction treatments that they've developed?

Ibogaine—Rite of Passage (trailer)


This is almost impossible to find these days—I watched it on a grainy VHS loaned to me by a legalization activist in England a few years ago. But the 60 Minutes segment on Dr. John Marks and his pioneering treatment of addicts in the Chapel Street Clinic in Liverpool earns a place on this list because of the massive impact it had. As the tail-end of the Margaret Thatcher era played out in the UK, and George H.W. Bush was president in the US, Dr. Marks was quietly going about the business of changing lives. The clinic was one of the few British drug-treatment centers that still operated under the so-called “British system”—ie, it prescribed pharmaceutical heroin and cocaine to addicts. This radical approach was launched in response to a heroin and HIV epidemic that was ravaging Liverpool at the time. The success of Dr. Marks’ work was astonishing: over two years, the local drug squad tracked the addicts who frequented the clinic and found that among them there was a 93% drop in theft, burglary and property crimes; HIV infection rates among the injecting drug users dropped to zero; and the number of deaths among the addicts—normally reckoned at 15% a year for that group—was also nil. Even more incredibly, the rate of new addicts also fell, as drug dealers stayed away from the area—discovering that their services were no longer required there.

All this stirred the interest of journalists, who descended upon the little clinic to see for themselves, a 60 Minutes crew among them. When the segment aired, however, it signaled the death knell for the clinic. When the Republican administration became aware that this little clinic was making a mockery of the entire US-led approach to drug addiction, they put pressure on their British allies to close it down. Dr. Marks recalls, “It was in deference to American sensibilities that Margaret Thatcher emasculated the whole harm-reduction program.” Heroin prescribing was stopped, Marks’ patients were switched over to methadone, and within a year the situation in Liverpool was as bad as ever—all thanks to a documentary that Marks says he'd given very little thought to at the time. “I’d forgotten all about [the film crew] among the plethora of other visitors, had no idea that their report had been broadcast nor that the Home Office would be interested in TV programs about clinics,” he now admits.

Dr. John Marks (photo via)

Tony O'Neill is a frequent contributor to The Fix and recently wrote about the world's best drug laws. He's the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City, and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie).


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