While Kuhn’s book, Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy, is an excellent resource for learning how drugs work on the brain, it’s admittedly not too useful for getting into the brain of the drug user. Because shooting up isn’t advised as proper research, it’s best to seek someone out who has. Kuhn recommends the works of William Burroughs or Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.

Another true drug story worth reading is Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl.

Kuhn also visits the Web site of Erowid, a “member-supported organization providing access to reliable, non-judgmental information about psychoactive plants, chemicals, and related issues.”

“It’s written by a bunch of people who think it’s fine to use drugs, so you have to take it at that level and they have a habit of minimizing bad effects a bit,” explains the doctor, “but they’re pretty accurate. Very good for hallucinogens, which is really their expertise.”

Finally, she strongly cautions you to avoid taking your research to The National Institute of Drug Abuse. “I think we actually do a better job of describing the range of things that happen,” she claims. “What they’re going to tell you is the worse thing that could ever happen.”

Just Say Know
Written by Denis Faye

From Reefer Madness [Screenplay by Arthur Hoerl] to Blow [Screenplay by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes], motion pictures have had a long and checkered habit of proclaiming the evils of recreational drugs. While Dr. Cynthia Kuhn doesn’t advocate drug use, she questions whether all this preaching is really necessary.

“The point of an artist is to tell a story,” claims the Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology and Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University. “It doesn’t have to be a good ending or a bad ending. It doesn’t have to glorify or villainize drugs. It has to simply be right and be relevant to the story.”

In addition to her teaching and research at Duke, Dr. Kuhn is the co-author of Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy as well as Just Say Know: Talking with Kids about Drugs and Alcohol.

Furthermore, given she’s a self-confessed movie buff, recreational drugs in film is a topic “near and dear to her heart,” making this native Angeleno an ideal candidate for a good, old Technically Speaking grilling. Her big message? Just keep it real. “You shouldn’t have it wrong, that’s why you’re talking to me,” she says, “but you’re not obligated to say it’s bad.”

What does Hollywood get right about recreational drug use?

When I think about it, the things they do best are the stories of people who really were addicts. They get that horrible story right because it usually has the ring of truth because it was written by an addict. Lady Sings the Blues [Screenplay by Terence McCloy and Chris Clark & Suzanne De Passe LeMat, Based on the Book by Billie Holliday and William Dufty], that one was great. Clean and Sober [Written by Tod Carroll] was a good story. I saw a really interesting movie called Down to the Bone [Screenplay by Debra Granik and Richard Lieske] about a mom who was a cocaine addict. But it’s gotten so that I can’t watch movies like this anymore, so I don’t watch as many as I used to because it’s so painful.

Another two on my list were Less Than Zero [Screenplay by Harley Peyton, Based on the Novel by Bret Ellis], which was an ever too appropriate story for the actor in that movie, and Panic in Needle Park [Screenplay by Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne, From the Novel by James Hills], which is a really old movie about heroin addicts.

When you’re adapting a screenplay from someone who is a drug user, you should trust how they describe the drug experience. They do that pretty well.

Those are all pretty dark.

Yes, well, people in a very jocular way, have pot right on average. I teach an undergraduate class on drugs of the brain. I try to engage the students, so an assignment was to bring a drug song and then analyze it scientifically. One year, I found that no one ever wrote a song that did anything but glorify the effects of pot, especially Cyprus Hill. But if you look at those songs written about alcohol and alcoholism, heroin and cocaine, they were by and large negative and accurate.

Most of the movies are like that too, but what they get right about pot is that it makes people stupid, it makes them not have a short-term memory. That piece of it, in terms of how people feel when they’re intoxicated, they usually have right because I think it’s something screenwriters understand. They know what it feels like. They know that relaxed feeling. They know that you can’t remember stuff. That’s pretty accurate.

What do they get wrong?

There are two things I see that I don’t think are realistic. The way people drink alcohol and remain completely coherent. And it varies in both directions, but typically it’s people slamming shots and shots and shots and shots past the point at which an adult would be unconscious.

The other thing that they get wrong, but I think this is a cinematic technique, and it only bothers me, is when people are very anxious and they fumble with the bottle of pills and they can’t get the top off and they drop them and then they take one, and they’re still anxious two minutes later they take another one. I don’t know if anyone actually does that. But I think that’s a cinematic technique created to convey that they’re still anxious rather than convey pharmacological reality, so I excuse them for that.

What are some of your favorite drug-related movies?

A movie that has one of the most accurate scenes I’ve ever seen is Trainspotting [Screenplay by John Hodge]. The overdose scene is exactly what happens, where they dump him in the ER, and they give him the intramuscular injection, and he jumps up and tries to punch out the nurse. Every EMT I’ve ever told that story to says that’s exactly what happens. You save their lives and they try to punch you out.

But there’s a whole piece of that movie that I didn’t think was right, when he’s going through withdrawals and he’s hallucinating. There, they got it wrong. People feel horrible, but they’re not out of their heads.

What are some other movies that get it wrong?

My absolute favorite example of bad pharmacology– I like it so much that I play it in my class– is Pulp Fiction [Written by Quentin Tarantino]. When he saves her from an overdose by injecting her in the heart with adrenaline. She’d be dead! You need to do what they did in Trainspotting, which would be to inject her in the arm with an opiate antagonist to reverse the effects of the drug. That was really fun, dramatic filmmaking, but it was really bad pharmacology. Terrible.

A movie that my husband liked that I didn’t like was Requiem for a Dream [Screenplay by Hubert Selby Jr. and Darren Aronfsky]. Every time that person shoots up with heroin, their pupils dilate, but every time you shoot up in reality, your pupils constrict. It really pissed me off, but only I would know this.

Do you think there’s a moral responsibility for screenwriters to portray drug use in a certain way?

I need to tell you my point of view about this and that’s that you need to do it accurately. I don’t think they at all have a moral responsibility to portray it negatively. The point of art is to tell a true story. One of the things that motivated our writing Buzzed is that most people didn’t have objective, accurate information about what drugs did. That’s my overriding philosophy about how I communicate about drugs in any venue, whether it’s teaching medical students or talking to parents.

You haven’t mentioned Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas [Screenplay by Terry Gilliam & Tony Grisoni and Tod Davies & Alex Cox]…

I knew you were going to say that! That’s a family icon! My entire family reveres Hunter Thompson as a writer. My son taught a course on Hunter Thompson in high school, so we’ve read everything he wrote, drug and politics related. But I can’t imagine he ever did drugs exactly the way he describes in that book. Who knows what mixing all those drugs would do? I don’t think a human being could survive it. I’ve often tried to think through how much of that was hyperbole. Did he do those things? Who knows? I don’t think we know. My guess is that he was wild, but not that wild.

One of the hardest things to do is hallucinogens. In one way, it’s easy because it’s a visual experience. The Doors [Written by J. Randal Johnson and Oliver Stone] did it in an interesting way. Another, and this may be highly personal, is The Bear [Screenplay by Gerard Brach], a very old movie about a baby bear who’s out on his own and he has to find food and he eats some hallucinogenic mushrooms.

Hallucinogen experiences are extremely personal, and I think film usually exaggerates them. There’s a range of experiences from things just seeming kind of weird to what we call pseudohallucinations when something isn’t real, but you know it’s not real. You need to take a lot to really have the perception that there are things there that you don’t realize are fake. And usually what film does is to create some incredibly complex and coherent visual scene, which is usually not what happens. But I think most people in film view that as metaphor, so I don’t know if that does a disservice to pharmalogic accuracy.

Another film they portrayed the drugs well in was Apocalypse Now [Screenplay by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola]. The scene where the blond kid has just dropped his last bit of acid and they go by that really surreal bridge at night, where he’s just sort of “Whoa!” It’s got an air of unreality to it. But rather than having Mickey Mouse coming out of the walls, it was all very surreal but comprehensible. I thought that was pretty accurate.

It’s better to be more external?

I think it’s hard to do the internal part. All they can show is how someone looks to an outside observer when they’re intoxicated with a drug. It’s very hard to give the sense of the internal experience. That’s the difference between writing and film. Like when you think about how heroin is usually depicted. It shows people pleasantly nodding off or being unresponsive. They usually have a melodramatic scene where they put a belt around their arm and inject it in the vein and you have a close up of the syringe and the blood flowing in— always, apparently— and then the nod off. That’s what it looks like from an outside observer. I’ve never injected heroin, so I can’t tell you this for sure, but people, at least when they start, have a far more positive experience than what that looks like on the screen. It’s easy on the screen to portray the negative effects of cocaine and heroin, but it’s much harder to portray the positive effects. You get this seductive rush of warm pleasure. If screenwriters want to do it right, they need to talk to someone who’s had that experience, or read someone’s description of it.

If a screenwriter wants to write about drugs, you don’t suggest experiencing the drugs first hand, do you?

No, but I think you need to talk to somebody who’s done it. I would never recommend that somebody take any addictive drug for the purposes of writing a screenplay. They might like it, and that would be a really bad idea.