Commodifying Addiction: An ethical Analysis of National Geographic's popular T.V. Show Drugs, Inc.’s Season 3

by rocki17000 on April 24, 2017 - 10:06am

Drugs, Inc. is a popular television documentary series from the National Geographic Channel. The show explores the different facets of drug use, from its production to its usage. The show started airing in 2010 and has a total of 7 seasons with 71 episodes total with more on the way as the show is still in production. The show originally only focused on a particular drug for each episode in seasons 1 and 2 but started to focus on specific regions for each episode from season 3 in an effort to widen the topics that could be discussed per episode. Each episode depicts production methods, usage by people of all walks of life, police busts and the socio-economic context of each area among other things. There are also many interviews with drug dealers that range from simple street pushers to high ranking cartel making millions of dollars per year. However, the mere nature of the documentary raises many ethical dilemmas. Is it ethically sound to show such content to the broad public using the particular format that the show uses?


            One of the most important part of the show is the depiction of a drug user's daily routine including the usage and purchase of a drug. It can be argued from a virtue ethics point of view that this is a virtuous thing to do as it helps expose the needs and struggles of people who suffer from addiction, possibly encouraging people from their local region to help. Furthermore, National Geographic is a reputable channel known for quality and honesty, therefore taking care of the problem of whether or not is the agent virtuous. Using some of the agent's past credentials, it is then safe to assume that the agent is doing a virtuous action by broadcasting this type of behaviour. Compared to most other T.V. shows, this one actually shows the negative aspects of substance use. According to George Gerbner “the use of addictive substances is shown as generally risk-free. More than nine out of 10 drinkers, more than 8 out of 10 smokers, and six out of 10 illicit drug users experience positive health effects or no health effects [in music videos and television].”(Kamalipour) However, from a deontological point of view, it is not such an ethical action. An article from the American Academy of Pediatrics has revealed that “movies that depict drug usage under any form increases the chances of a teenager using said drugs”. (The Council) Given that the show is rated 14 and plus, there is a strong chance that the show could increase illegal drug usage among younger viewers. Increased illicit drug usage in minors is not ethical under any system. Given that the show also has 7 seasons spanning 7 years, with many episodes showing the same information over and over, it is not hard to assume that a lot of the content is made purely for profit's sake as National Geographic is a private business that seeks to increase its profit. This is using people's addiction as a means to obtain monetary gain and is not ethical under any framework. The ways addict's lives are portrayed are then unethical in this show.


 Another ethically ambiguous part of the show is the interviews with drug dealers and drug producers. The show interviews them on their methods of sale and production as well as their history with crime. From a deontological perspective, there is nothing wrong with having an interview with someone about the actions that they have committed in the past, regardless if said actions were ethical or not. Talking about an unethical action does not make the discussion itself unethical. From a teleological perspective it is also ethically sound as the show claims its main objective is to inform viewers on the dangers of usage, production and sale of drugs. Not including the perspective of dealers would be a major mistake, and could even be considered biased, if it's to believe that education is the main objective of the show. Ethical concerns still arise in some cases. In one of the interviews, one of the drug dealers literally sends out a death threat to anyone "who dares to sell on his turf."(Drugs, Inc.) In other instances, the drug dealers describe how to smuggle drugs across international borders. This last part raises 2 different ethical questions; on one side it is quite literally giving out instructions on how to smuggle drugs across an international border, which again is not ethically sound under any ethical system, and on the other side, it can also put people in danger by exposing the way drugs are smuggled making them easy targets for rival gangs and police officers. Again, putting someone's life in danger by saying something on national television is not something that is ethically sound under any system. The show then also does very little to discourage these acts. There is no "Do not try this at home" or warnings that sensitive and dangerous content is present during the show. Because of the way these interviews are presented, it makes them ethically ambiguous.


Finally, one last ethical issue arises from the sensationalism the show sometimes creates, possibly breaking journalistic code of conducts rule. The show is not technically material that is journalistic like a newspaper or a news show is, giving it some leniency of the codes of conduct mentioned. Most documentary producers remark that “While journalists have stringent rules limiting interactions with subjects, doc filmmakers often spend long periods of time with their subjects, and end up forming real relationships with them.” (Leeman) However, given the fact that the show is presented the way it is, with no disclaimer about the veracity of the show, and also given its serious tone, it should abide by some of the rules. It does however keep the identity of the hidden sources secret. There have been no reports that a drug dealer or user was busted because of the show. There are however reports that some of the interviewed people were payed to appear on the show. There are even reports that some of the users were actually actors. The show has been criticized for “coming to you from Baltimore [where one of the episodes takes place] dumbed-down and tricked-out with the gimmicks and compromises reality TV has taught many viewers to accept as truth.”(Zurawick) This would be a major violation of the viewer’s agency as it is providing information that may possibly be skewed since there was an exchange of money. Furthermore, in many instances throughout the show the tone becomes very dark with eerie music playing in the background when dealing with more serious subjects. This is sensationalist as it present facts, that while true, in a way meant to scare the viewer and make them afraid of the drug and the user instead of providing information in a more neutral tone that the viewer could use to make up their mind.

In conclusion, there are some ethical dilemmas present throughout the show. Some dilemmas come from the nature of the show itself, given it is about illegal substances and the people using them, while others stem from how the show is presented as a document while possibly having actors and payed interviewees with no explicit mention of it. Although it may seem that those were just minor details, it is important that a show that deals with such sensitive topics keeps it audience informed of the goals of the show. Is it a documentary, is it a show attacking the drug industry, or is it a mere series meant to shock and cash in on easy views? There's nothing necessarily wrong with being any of those, but the show never makes it quite clear which one it is. It is then essential to take in the show with a grain of salt and ponder on how ethical Drugs, Inc. and its format actually is.




Drugs, Inc.. Created by Jonathan Hewes, season 3, National Geographic, 2012-2013.


Kamalipour, Yahya R., and Kuldip R. Rampal. Media, sex, violence, and drugs in the global village. Lanham, Mar.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001. Print.

Leeman, Lisa "Money Changes Everything--or Does It?: Considering Whether Documentaries Should Pay for Play." International Documentary Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

The Council on Communications and Media. "Children, Adolescents, Substance Abuse, and the Media." Pediatrics. American Academy of Pediatrics, 01 Oct. 2010. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.

Zurawik, David "'Drugs, Inc.' look at heroin in Baltimore substitutes reality TV for documentary filmmaking."  Baltimore Sun. N.p., 29 Aug. 2014. Web. 22 Apr. 2017.