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5 Movies About Drug Abuse

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

July 14, 2021 (Originally Published)

April 1, 2024 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

With over 20 million adults diagnosed with substance use disorder in the United States, according to 2019 NSDUH data, addiction strongly affects all demographics. If you or a loved one are dealing with addiction, it is vital to seek out professional help, such as our California rehab.

At some point, most people abusing drugs to the point of addiction need to engage in treatment to prevent their lives from further deteriorating.

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Now, if you have been grappling with drug abuse and you need some inspiration to clean up, the movies we highlight today explore the darker side of drug use. If you feel the need for a wake-up call, settle down with one of the following 5 films about drug addiction.

5 Insightful Movies About Drug Addiction

1. Trainspotting

2. Requiem for a Dream

3. Traffic

4. Drugstore Cowboy

5. Less Than Zero 

1) Trainspotting

Trainspotting is arguably the most realistic and harrowing movies about heroin addiction and it’s also one of the funniest films in this genre, even if the humor is pitch black.

Irvine Welsh, author of the controversial source novel of the same name, was addicted to heroin for eighteen months during the 1980s. This first-hand experience was brought to life on the big screen by Danny Boyle.

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Released to critical acclaim despite the impenetrable Scottish accents of the characters Trainspotting follows as they engage in petty crime to fund their heroin habits. Protagonist Mark Renton is an unemployed heroin addict in his mid-twenties living with his parents in a depressed area of suburban Edinburgh.

The movie gives us an insight into the chaos heroin addiction brings into the lives of users and their families. We see the main characters trying to stop using drugs and then relapsing, one of the harsh realities of recovery of two in three drug users. One of the characters, once a promising footballer, contracts AIDS and becomes hopelessly addicted to heroin. We witness a dead baby in one of the harshest scenes in the movie, but one that barely moves the motley crew of heroin addicts present in the apartment.

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After chancing upon a consignment of several pounds of high-quality heroin, Renton and friends head to London where they manage to offload the drugs for the equivalent of $20,000. Betraying all of his friends except for the benign Spud, Renton steals the proceeds of the drug deal and heads off into the distance.

For anyone under the impression that addiction is a choice, Trainspotting presents an alternative view, a view showing the an absence of choice can lead to drug abuse appearing as what seems like the only viable option.

In T2, the movie’s sequel, we rejoin the characters and see that many have not made much progression. The same is true of the area of Scotland the movie is set in, still riddled with heroin today and showing us that punitive drug laws like those in the UK are not doing anything to address the underlying cause of drug addiction.

2) Requiem for a Dream

Directed by auteur Daren Aronofksy and based on Hubert Selby Jr’s powerful novel of the same name, Requiem for a Dream showcases the unraveling mental states of a dysfunctional family of addicts.

The action kicks off with Sara Golfarb, an elderly woman, chaining her TV to the wall. In what we learn is his normal routine, her son Harry manages to unchain the TV so he can pawn it for drugs. Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and his best friend Tyrone are all meth addicts.

Aronofsky uses a range of extreme close-ups to showcase the intricacies of swallowing, snorting, and injecting hard drugs. Speeded up sequences and quick fades show to devastating effect the fleeting effects of the high delivered by drugs like meth. After things seem very briefly normal again, the trio are soon on another quest for the money to bankroll their drug habits.

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At the same time, Sara becomes addicted to a game show. When she receives a crank call intimidating that she will be appearing on the show, this thought becomes all-consuming. In an obsessive attempt to fit into her favorite red dress, Sara is prescribed diet pills by her diet. While she loses weight, she also loses her mind, succumbing to disturbing hallucinations.

While unflinching and graphic in execution, Requiem for a Dream is highly likely to discourage anyone tempted to use drugs rather than in any way glorifying drug use.

3) Traffic

Traffic is a dense and multi-layered examination of the drug trade viewed from multiple lenses.

In the first story thread, we see a conservative judge appointed as a government drug czar. His daughter becomes addicted to crack cocaine, showing us that addiction doesn’t discriminate.

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The second plot strand deals with a pair of DEA agents attempting to protect one of their informants.

In the other main thread, we see the wife of a jailed drug lord attempting to keep the business running while her husband is incarcerated.

The Soderbergh movie scooped four Academy Awards, despite its intensely political tone. Critically and commercially successful, this movie remains relevant today with Mexican drug cartels continuing to flood the United States with a smorgasbord of illegal drugs.

4) Drugstore Cowboy

Gus Van Sant’s 1989 classic Drugstore Cowboy outlines the lives of a network of drug addicts robbing drug stores to fund their addictions back in the 1970s.

The film is based on James Fogle’s memoir of the same name. Bob (played by Matt Dillon) and his wife Dianne (played by Kelly Lynch) travel across the US with another couple, Rick and Nadine, until tragedy strikes. During one of the robberies, Nadine fatally overdoses on a bottle of highly pure Dilaudid. Bob is almost captured, and in the aftermath of this debacle, he commits to a methadone treatment program, breaking bonds with the others.

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The action ends with Bob being shot and driven to the hospital, “the fattest pharmacy in town” with the full intention of returning to his old ways.

Drugstore Cowboy makes it abundantly clear that there is no choice in addiction, and that addiction imposes a rigid structure on users unable to resist the lure of more drugs, whatever the cost. It’s also one of the very few films rated 100% on movie aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

5) Less Than Zero

While Less than Zero was not the most critically acclaimed movie on our list today, the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s seminal eighties novel about Clay, a wealthy teen from Los Angeles returning home for a month in Beverly Hills over Christmas.

Clay uses cocaine indiscriminately, as do most characters in this portrait of privileged youth during a period known for its excess. His friend Julian, on the other hand, is now addicted to cocaine and heroin, while also working as a male prostitute to pay off drug debts. Julian is played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr, an actor with a history of drug addiction and arrests for possession of both heroin and cocaine.

Although he ultimately tries to clean up, Julian dies of heart failure, showing that even the

Despite Bret Easton Ellis initially hating the movie – he feels it was unfaithful to his “novel for the MTV generation” – and receiving mixed critical reviews, Less Than Zero is a strong indictment of what can happen when young people go off the rails, even in wealthy enclaves you might not typically associate with drug addiction.

Addiction Treatment at Renaissance Recovery

If you have been abusing drugs to the extent you need professional help to clean up, we can help you with that at Renaissance Recovery, regardless of the scope and nature of your addiction.

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Our highly personalized treatment programs give you access to a combination of medication-assisted treatment if appropriate and psychotherapy. FDA-approved medications are especially useful for relieving the symptoms of opioid use disorder and minimizing cravings. With psychotherapy like DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), you can identify your triggers for drug use and formulate healthier coping strategies.

If you’re suffering from a co-occurring mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, our dual diagnosis treatment program will help you tackle both issues simultaneously.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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