The Drug War’s Censorship Weapon

By Maxim W. Furek, MA, CADC, ICADC

The Drug War’s Censorship Weapon

As the war against drugs weaponizes criminality and incarceration, its censorship weapon continues to repress critical and privileged information from the masses. In this article, we will explore how rampant censorship has impacted on motion pictures and popular music.

Production Code Administration

Back in the 1930’s, the film industry used the censorship weapon to disregard drug use. After the Roman Catholic Church formed the National Legion of Decency and threatened to boycott inappropriate films, Hollywood established the Production Code Administration that, beginning in 1934, banned depiction of drug use. It stated:

Illegal drug traffic must never be presented, because of its evil consequences, the drug traffic should not be presented in any form. The existence of the trade should not be brought to the attention of audiences.

Because of that ban, accurate information about drug use was repressed and in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, Americans were largely ignorant about the dangers of drug use and addiction. Years later, in 1946, the production code became even more repressive:

The illegal drug traffic must not be portrayed in such a way to stimulate curiosity concerning the use of, or traffic in, such drugs; nor shall scenes be approved which show the use of illegal drugs, or their effects, in detail.

The censorship weapon was challenged after a number of motion pictures portrayed drug use through a more realistic lens. Nelson Algren’s 1949 novel, The Man with The Golden Arm, approached heroin as a serious literary topic, rejecting the popular “dope fiend” treatment. Because it dealt with the subject of “narcotics,” the Production Code withheld its seal of approval, still, Frank Sinatra, playing the role of addict “Johnny Machine,” received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in the 1955 film adaptation.

Production Code dominance eroded after vigorous antitrust laws and expanded First Amendment rights were enacted, and in 1968 the Motion Picture Association of America began a new rating system: G, PG, R or X.

The Panic in Needle Park

In response to a demanding public, Hollywood answered with a cluster of films depicting the harsh realities of drug use. The Panic in Needle Park (1971) shot in a moving cinema verte style, depicted a tender story of two young lovers trapped in heroin’s seductive web. It is believed to have been the first mainstream film to graphically show actual drug injection.

In April 1986, the M.P.A.A. announced that any depiction of drug use would receive an automatic PG-13 rating, warning parents that “some material may be inappropriate for young children.’”

During the 90’s, several popular films focused on heroin as a central theme, demonstrating that the public harbored a fascination for heroin’s forbidden culture. A prime example was the independent film Pulp Fiction, which cost only $8 million to produce, yet grossed almost $110 million in revenue.

Director Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting took a hard look at Scotland’s violent heroin subculture and became one of the decade’s more popular genre films, while Traffic became the most commercially successful heroin film, winning four Academy Awards.

Filthy Fifteen 

Mary Elizabeth “Tipper” Gore was the second lady of the United States (1993 to 2001) and a leading proponent of the censorship weapon. Listening to a copy of Prince’s Purple Rain with her 11-year-old daughter, Gore was offended with the track “Darling Nikki”, which included a line about a “sex fiend masturbating with a magazine.”

Because of that song, Gore co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), advocating for advisory labels on album covers featuring profane language. The PMRC took an especially hard look at popular music and identified fifteen songs as obscene due to sexual content, violence or drug use.

PMRC’s “Filthy Fifteen” included Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” Sheena Easton’s “Sugar Walls,” Judas Priest’s “Eat Me Alive,” Vanity’s “Strap On Robbie Baby,” Motley Crue’s “Bastard,” AC/DC’s “Let Me Put My Love Into You,” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”

The remaining songs were Madonna’s “Dress You Up,” WASP’s “Animal (F—k Like A Beast”), Def Leppard’s “High ‘n’ Dry,” Mercyful Fate’s “Into The Coven,” Black Sabbath’s “Trashed,” Mary Jane Girl’s “In My House,” Venom’s “Possessed,” and Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop.”

In 1985, the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing on the proposed labels. After the PMRC presented their case, Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider and John Denver testified.  Zappa said, “If it looks like censorship and it smells like censorship, it is censorship, no matter whose wife is talking about it,” referring to Al Gore’s wife. Snider argued that it was a straightforward infringement of civil liberties and John Denver equated the censorship to Nazi book burnings in the 1940s.

While Gore’s campaign scored points with community PTA’s, those warning stickers attracted potential consumers. Motley Crue’s Vince Neil said years later: “Once you put that sticker on, that parental-warning sticker, that album took off. Those kids wanted it even more.”

Although Frank Zappa was recognized as a highly accomplished musician, perhaps his greatest achievement was to advocate for free speech in popular music. He intelligently debated prominent conservative voices such as John Lofton, columnist for the Washington Times and Tipper Gore. But during his statement to the Senate’s Committee, Zappa sidestepped pop music advocacy, embracing a wider message:

Children in the vulnerable age bracket have a natural love for music. If, as a parent, you believe they should be exposed to something more uplifting than ‘Sugar Walls,’ support Music Appreciation programs in schools. Music Appreciation costs very little compared to sports expenditures. Your children have a right to know that something besides pop music exists.

Zappa’s words went unheeded and as result of the PMRC, albums were required to include warning labels and by August 1985, nineteen record companies agreed to place “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics” labels on certain albums. The PMRC even devised its own “porn rock” rating system, with an “X” for profane or sexually explicit lyrics, “O” for occult references, “D/A” for lyrics about drugs and alcohol, and “V” for violent content.

Despite the censorship weapon, constructed within the music and motion picture industries, consumers remain fascinated about the drug subculture and support artforms exploring those forbidden themes. Censorship is wrong. It deprives us of the power of knowledge, and knowledge, as we all know, is power.

Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis.