There’s a video series where you can watch three attractive young people do drugs like ecstasy, speed, LSD and salvia as they panic, dance and masturbate. It sounds like something you’d find on the dark web, but it’s actually a government-sponsored YouTube series from the Netherlands.
The channel’s called Drugslab and it has more than half a million subscribers. Hosts Nellie Benner, Rens Polman and Bastiaan Rosman perform on-camera tests of drugs suggested by commenters. The show is financed by Dutch public broadcaster BNNVARA. This particular brand of government-backed programming, while perhaps shocking to U.S. viewers, isn’t novel in the Netherlands. Spuiten en Slikken — translated as Shoot and Swallow — is another BNNVARA show about drugs and sex that first aired in 2005. Hosts experiment with substances ranging from ecstasy to amphetamines and explore sex toys, porn, fetishes and more.
Drugslab’s stated aim is to promote harm reduction and drug education using real-life experiences of substance use.
“We are trying to make videos that are easy to watch, with entertainment but also with a lot of serious notes,” Benner said in an email interview. “For young people who want to experiment, but also for parents who want to know what their children may try.”
The Drugslab set looks like a high-school chemistry classroom, complete with a lab bench, beakers and blackboard. In one episode, Benner and Polman, dressed in goofy Christmas sweaters with holiday music playing in the background, try cocaine. Benner snorts a line while Polman observes and narrates the drug’s effects and risks. A board behind them tracks her heart rate and temperature.
“It feels like I have snow in my nose,” Benner said at one point. “l also feel a bit naughty.”
Drug use as education
Harm reduction is a hallmark of drug policy in the Netherlands, where it’s an offense to produce, possess, sell, import or export drugs but not to consume them. While the Dutch have a higher prevalence of cocaine, amphetamine and ecstasy use among young adults compared to the rest of the European Union, overall drug use statistics aren’t staggering. Just 8.7% of adults in the Netherlands used marijuana — the country’s most popular illicit drug — in 2015.
By comparison, 13.5% of Americans over the age of 12 reported marijuana use in the same year. Drug-related deaths are also much more common in the United States: More than 52,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2015, nearly 10 times the Netherlands’ overdose death rate of 16.5 per million during the same period.
Dutch addiction and treatment experts attribute this to more open attitudes toward drugs and a focus on harm reduction, key principles of which include providing accurate and unbiased information without judgement and using language that meets people where they are. Harm reduction also acknowledges that attitudes and action toward drug use should focus more on public health than criminal justice.
“The bottom line is people use drugs and they have for all of existence,” Vilmarie Fraguada Narloch, drug education manager at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said in a phone interview. “It’s nothing new. So really the idea is safety — if they’re going to choose to use something, that they have the proper knowledge of what they are taking, how to take it and how to do it in the safest way possible.”
The future of drug safety
Drugslab does take steps to keep its stars and audience safe. According to the show’s producers, all drugs used are checked by the Ministry of Health’s Drugs Information Monitoring System, medical assistance is standing by on filming days and the team works with Jellinek Prevention, an addiction care facility in the Netherlands, to collect information about their chosen substances. Still, Floor van Bakkum, a senior prevention worker at Jellinek, cautions that Drugslab is just a TV show, not a proven method of harm prevention.
“It has not been produced with the main focus on harm reduction, but its main goal is entertainment,” she said via email. “As far as we know, there has been no research to the effect of a program like this.”
Many harm reduction experts agree Drugslab and its format have some positive points. It begins to challenge our assumptions about who does drugs and what people look like under the influence of certain substances, according to Stefanie Jones, director of Drug Policy Alliance’s #SaferPartying campaign.
Jones said she believes Drugslab is a “good tool, with limits.” But if reproduced in the United States, it would need to be done much more thoughtfully, with more explicit disclaimers — “This is one person’s reaction, and it may not be yours” — and an in-depth fact check to tighten up the message, she said. The show has been widely criticized in online drug communities, including on YouTube, for providing misleading and incomplete information.
Those who work in harm reduction and drug education aren’t necessarily concerned whether viewers will be influenced to try drugs — rather, their issue is the show doesn’t do enough to break down mainstream views of substance use and users, nor does it properly address the drugs that are most stigmatized. For example, though YouTube commenters often request heroin and methamphetamine, Benner, Polman and Rosman are clear they won’t use substances “you will get addicted to after only one time.”
Experts caution against drawing a distinction between recreational and problematic drug use, which exist on a spectrum. To Seth Fitzgerald, a drug educator and founder of The Drug Classroom, this represents a missed opportunity to bring harm reduction practices and information about drugs like heroin and meth to light and — and instead deepens the stigma associated with them.
“If you portray yourself as offering a sympathetic perspective of drug use and proceed to spread misperceptions of the most stigmatized drugs, you’re contributing to the problem,” Fitzgerald said in an email. “Drugslab has chosen to adopt mainstream perceptions of drugs when it should be challenging them. Drugslab’s position is that it’s better to preach a ‘just say no’ message for certain drugs than to encourage harm reduction.”
Like abstinence-only sex education, the traditional approach to drug education and policy leaves those who are interested in experimentation uninformed and vulnerable, Fitzgerald added. While it’s the prerogative of Drugslab’s hosts to not actually use heroin or meth, addressing the facts around heavily stigmatized drugs, at the very least, shows that harm reduction practices exist and matter for every substance.