The Glamorized Destructive Behaviors of Drugs, Gambling, & Criminal Activity
The Story of Amy Winehouse
In 2008, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime wrote in The Guardian that the drug habits of English singer and songwriter Amy Winehouse (among those of other celebrities) were a bad example to fans and members of the general public who were vulnerable to addiction, and contributed to drug smuggling across the African continent.
The fact that the executive director of a department of the United Nations specifically mentioned Amy Winehouse illustrates the degree to which drug use, gambling, and criminal activity have been glamorized. In 2006, Winehouse released her signature song “Rehab,” the chorus of which features the lyrics “They tried to make me go to rehab / I said no, no, no.” The song won three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year. TIME magazine called it the best song of the year, saying that Winehouse was “funny,” and “quite possibly crazy,” even admitting that her real-life problems with alcohol came second place to her originality.
Five years later, at the age of 27, Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning, after a protracted and public battle with substance abuse. Two months before the Guardian column written by the executive director of the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime was published, Winehouse’s record label pointed out that the media frenzy surrounding her very visible battles with substance abuse and law enforcement “kept her profile at the highest level.” Even when Winehouse “wasn’t available” (she was in rehab at the time) Universal Music International was “extremely happy with the amount of records we’ve sold,” citing “some amazing marketing opportunities.”
After Winehouse’s death, UMI released a statement that lamented the “sudden loss of such a gifted musician, artist and performer.”
Universal Music International walking the line between acknowledging the publicity surrounding Winehouse’s drug habits, while grieving her death two years later, mirrors the murky territories that surround the intersection between celebrity life and substance abuse. On the one hand, our celebrities are pop culture icons, real-life heroes who inspire and entertain us; on the other, their struggles and battles are glamorized for all the world to see.
Only when the inevitable happens are the answers to the tough questions sought out. Until then, in the words of TIME magazine, it’s “funny” and “quite possibly crazy.”
Wolfing down Cocaine on Wall Street
Another example of the moral ambiguity comes from Hollywood. In 2013, Martin Scorsese adapted The Wolf of Wall Street for the big screen. The movie is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a disgraced Wall Street stockbroker who was infamous for the high-stakes corruption and fraud that led to his personal and professional downfall.
In another day and another time, The Wolf of Wall Street might have been a cautionary tale. But whether in a quest for verisimilitude, or to make good on the artistic freedom granted by the production company, Scorsese and producer Leonardo DiCaprio (who played Belmont in the movie) turned The Wolf of Wall Street into what The Daily Beast called “an outrageously depraved orgy of sex [and] cocaine.” Of the “The 21 Craziest Moments” in the movie listed by the Beast, six of them involve scenes that depict the consumption and effects of cocaine and Quaalude binges.
One scene not mentioned is when Belfort, trying to get sober, has a violent argument with his wife. Enraged to the point of relapse, he tears apart a pillow, hunting for a secret stash of cocaine. Watching an advance screening of the movie, Business Insider reports that a group of bankers reacted “gleefully” to the scene, as well as cheering another scene where Belfort – high on Quaalude, a muscle relaxant – “dumps [cocaine] into his nose” to get high again.
Reckless Entertainment vs. Indicting Statements
Business Insider opines that the line between satirizing the excesses of Wall Street, and outright celebrating them, is very fine. For the daughter of one of the brokers who worked with Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street fell on the wrong side of that line. In an open letter to LA Weekly published the day after the film’s release, Christina McDowell writes that the movie is a “reckless attempt” at finding entertainment in the debauched excesses her father became known for. Claiming that the “fun sexcapades and coke binges” are the behavior that “brought America to its knees,” McDowell berates Scorsese (with eight Academy Award nominations for Best Director under his belt) and DiCaprio for glorifying accomplished criminals (Belfort and her father), contributing to the public’s fascination with money, power, and greed, at the expense of the victims’ and the family members’ dignity.
The point is strongly echoed by Joel Cohen, the former Assistant United States Attorney who led the criminal investigation against the real Jordan Belfort. Writing in The New York Times, Cohen excoriates both Scorsese’s movie and the memoirs upon which it was based, saying that the morally ambiguous depiction of “too-outlandish-to-believe” debauchery was “beyond an insult” to the investors who were scammed out of millions of dollars. The end of the movie, where the real Belfort makes a cameo advertising his real-life motivational speaking business, seemed to exonerate the man and “[blurred] the lines too much” between realism and drama.
DiCaprio insists that neither he nor Scorsese condoned the behavior in their movie, saying that The Wolf of Wall Street was an indicting statement on avarice and the intoxication of power.
Notwithstanding claims of artistic expression, the controversy surrounding The Wolf of Wall Street, Amy Winehouse’s lifestyle and death, and countless other stories of glamorized and celebrity drug indulgences explain the public’s fascination with stories of living dangerously, either through drugs, gambling, criminal activity, or all three.
Consider the mob movie genre, which accounts for some of the most critically acclaimed motion pictures in American history. Goodfellas, also directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the true story of a mobster who falls from grace (and into the Federal Witness Protection Program), was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant”. Scorsese followed up Goodfellas with Casino, described as the culmination of the criminal drive for money, sex, power, and wealth, where the female lead dies of a heroin overdose. Bugsy, the true-life story of the gangster who developed the Las Vegas strip and established the Mexico-U.S. drug trade route, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (The Wolf of Wall Street was nominated for five).
A Brief History of Drugs in Film
The New York Film Academy explains that the relationship between drug use and film goes back to the infancy of cinema. Films featuring cocaine-sniffing detectives busting Chinese opium dens (full of stereotypical Chinese characters) were very popular during the silent era, but the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code from 1930 to 1968 sought to redefine what was acceptable for American films to show, and for American audiences to view. To that effect, films often reproduced misconceptions about drugs (like marijuana in 1937’s Reefer Madness, originally entitled Tell Your Children, a movie that is today regarded as one of the worst movies of all time), which had the effect of significantly pushing drugs to the margins of popular culture.
But the hippie movement of the 1960s and 1970s, combined with strong anti-government sentiment spurred by the Vietnam War and the influence of foreign filmmakers, spelled the end of the Production Code Era. In 1968, Easy Rider depicted LSD and marijuana use without the condemnation that would have been mandatory as part of the Production Code, and even used real cannabis in some scenes.
The Thin White Line
With the 1980s came the Reagan administration and the War on Drugs, and a move toward more realistic portrayals of drug abuse and consequences, and away from the positive representations of the 1970s. Scarface, for example, showed both the power and wealth that came from cocaine smuggling, but also ended in carnage and devastation. Like The Wolf of Wall Street 30 years later, critics were divided on whether Scarface had an actual story to tell on the evils of drug use and trafficking, or simply enjoyed glamorizing “the thin white line between celebratory excess and moral drama.”
But the small screen “fell in love with marijuana,” writes The Atlantic, pointing to the series of Cheech & Chong comedies dating back to 1978’s Up in Smoke that used the title characters’ love of cannabis for comedic material. The series coincided with a growing shift in the popular perception of marijuana, a shift that saw Reefer Madness become adored by marijuana advocates because of its over-the-top presentation and inaccuracy.
In 1969, Gallup asked Americans what they felt about legalizing cannabis. Only 12 percent of respondents felt that the use of marijuana should be legal. When the same question was asked in 2013, 58 percent of people responding to the poll supported marijuana’s legalization.,
As society evolved, so did the way stories about drugs were told. Requiem for a Dream (2000) won critical praise for its “agonizing and unflinchingly grim portrait of drug use.” Another movie that did not hold back from the wretchedness and ugliness of substance abuse was 1996’s Trainspotting, which the Washington Post called an “enjoyable, provocative pop-culture experience,” and was voted as the best British film of the preceding 60 years., The movie attracted controversy for its scenes of explicit heroin use, but the former Chief Medical Officer of the United Kingdom defended the movie, saying that it did more to warn people about the dangers of drugs than government health notices and “the average professor standing up and talking about it.”
Songs and Substances
For generations, the film industry has been scrutinized for its mixed messages on substance abuse, but it is the music business that reaches vulnerable and at-risk populations with greater penetration and effectiveness.
A 2008 report published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that 33 percent of popular songs contained clear and explicit references to using drugs or alcohol. That equates to 35 references of substance abuse in one hour of listening to music. While popular music has always been a concern for parents, The New York Times writes that nearly 90 percent of adolescents and teenagers have personal music players or smartphones, where they can consume music dealing with mature topics without the knowledge of their parents.
Of the songs surveyed, the report also found:
- 14 percent mentioned using marijuana
- 4 percent contained messages against using drugs or alcohol
- 12 percent spoke of other substances
- 24 percent contained references to alcohol use
The study noted that some genres of music glamorize self-destructive behaviors more than others. Pop music, for example, had five references to drug or alcohol use within a 24-hour period; rap music, on the other hand, had 251 references in the same time period.
A Bad Rap
The point about rap music was the focus of a study published by Addiction Research & Theory, which found that lyrics pertaining to illegal drug use increased by six times from 1979 to 2008.
The focus coincides with how public opinion has shifted on certain drugs, and, in particular, marijuana, as seen by Gallup polls and the popularity of the Cheech & Chong movies referenced above. But in addition to marijuana being seen as recreational and harmless (by “record numbers of teenagers,” according to Scientific American), other drugs are presented in ways associated with money, fame, glamor, and social status. UC Berkeley News contrasts this with rap music from previous decades, which depicted drugs – especially crack cocaine – in a negative light.
But, like society, rap music also changed, giving way to underground and hardcore subgenres that embraced the violence and abuse around them.
The study looked at the 38 most popular rap songs from 1979 to 1984 (based on Billboard charts), and found that only four songs (11 percent) had mentions of drug use. By the early 1990s, that jumped to 45 percent, and between 1994 and 1997, 69 percent of the top 125 rap songs spoke of drug use in a positive light. More and more artists and groups started to reference drugs in their music, a trend that continues to the present day. Another study mentioned by UC Berkeley News writes of how 77 percent of the 62 rap songs featured on Billboard’s 279 most popular songs of 2005 include drug and alcohol use in the context of peer activities, wealth, and sex.
Rap Music and Drug Abuse
Why is such dangerous behavior glamorized by this subset of the rap music genre? Complex suggests that it’s good business for artists who are looking to establish credibility and legitimacy with listeners (often African Americans) who are angry and disgruntled at being on the receiving end of unfair (and possibly discriminatory) drug sentencing laws., 
And the audience seems to be listening. MTV reports that a study conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation found that people who listen to rap music are more likely to use drugs and alcohol, and behave aggressively. Seventy percent of 1,200 students in California answered questions on a survey that showed an association between daily (or almost daily) listening of rap music, to their answers on drug and alcohol use, as well as aggressive behavior.
The leader of the study was at pains to point out that she didn’t want to imply that rap music causes drug use, or to condemn rap music on the whole, because that’s not how substance abuse happens. Drug use, aggressive behavior, and other forms of harmful activity (such as problem gambling) aren’t caused by a single factor in a person’s life. They are often the result of years of development, sometimes stretching back before birth, accumulating during childhood, cultivated and fostered through adolescence and adulthood, and finally coming to life when just the right conditions are met.
Music and Molly
Rap music is not the only genre to have been associated with substance abuse. The electronic dance music usually played in nightclubs has made infamous references to MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy or Molly), a psychedelic stimulant that causes feelings of empathy and emotional bonding. The sentiment has crossed over into other styles of music, where pop singer Miley Cyrus – who was a teen idol for her role in a Disney Channel television series – attracted controversy for her 2013 song “We Can’t Stop” featuring lyrics about “Trying to get a line in the bathroom” and “Dancin’ with Molly.”
Commenting on the popularity of Molly in the dance pop music scene, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware notes that such references go as far back as the 1950s, with jazz musicians broaching the subject of marijuana use in their music. Every decade since then has had at least one classic band (The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton, etc.) incorporating messages about drugs in their creative output. Celebrities create trends that their fans feel compelled to follow.
The Likely Causes of Substance Abuse and Addiction
Media glamorization of drug abuse in song, movies, and television plays a role, but the picture of what causes addictive behavior is like a jigsaw puzzle. The role that singers like Amy Winehouse, and movies like Trainspotting play in whether or not a person takes up drugs, depends on the role (and even the presence) of dozens of other factors.
One such factor that is often brought up in debates about the nature of addiction is genetics. The question is always: “Do genes cause addiction?” But the answer is never that simple. The National Association for Children of Alcoholics explains that the children who have alcoholic parents have a 40 percent chance of becoming alcoholics themselves in their adulthood; however, the other 60 percent of that chance comes from numerous other conditions, including but not limited to:
- Socioeconomic environment
- Access to alcohol or other drugs
- Lifestyle and upbringing
- Mental health development
Genes do have a role to play in addiction, says the American Psychological Association, but how much of a role they play is so nebulous and fluid, that to simply equate a family history of substance abuse with the likelihood of a person developing those same problems, disregards an entire lifetime’s worth of other potential triggers.
The same principle applies to other forms of self-destructive behavior, like gambling. People who gamble have similar neurological and psychological brain and behavior responses as people who engage in substance abuse. The same areas of the brain are stimulated as a reaction to the same environmental cues. A person who is genetically and environmentally primed to seek out instant reward might be especially vulnerable to a message in a movie or song about monetary, sexual, or chemical gratification. Even if other factors (like the ones mentioned above) are in balance, repeatedly listening to or viewing (in the right contexts and situations) could be what tips the scales.
When Is It Too Much?
Recognizing the signs of when a substance abuse problem is in effect, or when a person’s gambling has become problematic, entails looking at the other parts of the person’s life to see what effect the behavior is having.
For example, someone who gambles infrequently, does not wager a lot of money, does not spend obsessive amounts of time at a casino (either in real life or online), and is content to not gamble, will likely not meet any criteria for a gambling addiction.
If, however, a person displays the following issues, it could be a clear indication that their gambling is out of control:
- Needs to wager higher and higher amounts of money to feel the same level of excitement
- Becomes tense, flustered, or irritable when not gambling
- Thinks about gambling when not gambling
- Has failed prior attempts to give up gambling
- Turns to gambling as a first resort for dealing with stressful situations
- Hides evidence of gambling activities
- Borrows or steals money to continue gambling
- Continues to gamble despite loss of time and money, causing personal and professional damage
When Is Drinking a Problem?
The same dynamics apply to substance abuse. A person who drinks moderately will not raise any comparable red flags, but someone who is drinking to excess will find a number of the following signs uncomfortably familiar:
- Has to drink larger and larger amounts of alcohol to feel the same effects
- Struggles to cope or function when not drinking
- Has tried to give up drinking, but failed
- Drinks as a standard response to any stressful stimuli
- Borrows or steals money to buy alcohol
- Tries to cover up evidence of drinking
- Continues to drink despite evidence that the drinking is causing personal/professional harm.
When Is It Time for Treatment?
Friends and family of a loved one going through a substance abuse or pathological behavioral problem may wonder at what point they should step in. Too often, the myth of “waiting for rock bottom” comes into play, waiting for the person to endure their lowest possible moment, before stepping in and suggesting (or demanding) treatment.
The idea of waiting for rock bottom has numerous flaws. Firstly, it allows an addiction maximum time to wreak as much damage as possible, whether financially (in terms of stealing/spending money), emotionally and mentally (the heartbreak of watching a loved one’s life fall apart), or even physically (risky and self-harming behavior brought about by drug or alcohol abuse).
Optimally, a substance abuse or behavioral problem should be nipped in the bud, before it has the time to do any long-lasting damage. This also has the benefit of making treatment significantly easier (and possibly even quicker), since there will be less damage control for a therapist to assist with.
For someone who was swayed by messages of excess in the media they consumed, one area of treatment might be avoiding such media; that is, a client fresh out of recovery will likely (have to) avoid listening to the songs and artists that were associated with their substance abuse, or not watch the movies that fed into their gambling problem. This may require an additional layer of care and detail; the messages that encourage (or, at least, glamorize) excessive and hedonistic behavior are found in many places (from billboards, to commercials, to even light entertainment broadcasts), and a large swath of the general public does not recognize how harmful this media can be to people in recovery.
In the aftermath of Amy Winehouse’s death, for example, MinnPost observed that Winehouse’s demons were unrecognized “in a society that doesn’t understand or respond to mental illness with great effectiveness.”
And in a society that cannot appreciate the complex spectrum of mental illness, the glamorization of drugs and gambling will likely continue.
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 “An Open Letter to the Makers of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and the Wolf Himself.” (December 2013). LA Weekly. Accessed February 23, 2016.
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 “Content Analysis of Tobacco, Alcohol and Other Drugs in Popular Music.” (2008). Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. Accessed February 25, 2016.
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