Is Netflix series “How to sell drugs online (fast)” an incitement to narcotics abuse?

Simone Redaelli

Simone Redaelli

Simone is a biologist and scientific copywriter. He is vice-director of Culturico, where his writings cover the intersection between philosophy, poetry, science and society. He is also the author of "A Sonnet to Freud", a blog for Psychology Today to illustrate how the life of poets, novelists, and intellectuals can be an inspiration for individuals to better face their interior and social life.

At first sight, Netflix series “How to sell drugs online (fast)” seems to foster the consumption of narcotics and their illegal business among teenagers. In this article we try to go deeper beneath the surface: are media discourses only focused on condemning drug abuse still effective? Have they ever been? What if communication based on permission and legitimacy of drug experience turned out to be more effective? Netflix might have opened a new wave of reasoning we should at least discuss.

On 31st May 2019, Netflix released a series called How to sell drugs online (fast), which explores novel mediatic communicative strategies to discuss drug consumption and illegal selling.
The plot is inspired by true events that happened in Leipzig in 2015. A twenty year old man was arrested on the charge of having trafficked six hundred kilos of narcotics both via the dark web* and the “user-friendly” public web.
Despite the original inspiration, the narrated story is deeply fictionalized and focuses on the lives of two teenagers who start their own online drug business as a redemption from high-school unpopularity.

*In simple terms, the dark web defines a part of internet that is not indexed on search engines.

Let us now try to analyze which novelties are introduced by the series.
First, the story fully embodies the contemporary conception of drugging, offering a clear idea about how teenagers truly deal with the use of narcotics in the 21st century.
A historical – and personal – anecdote will help to elaborate more on this point. At the end of the 90s, I was still a child. After school I used to play soccer with my mates in a small public garden, located in the middle of a huge street and surrounded by fences. Between the fences and the actual road where cars constantly passed, there was a dedicated rail path for trams. For us children it was strictly forbidden to walk that path to chase the ball: we might have found used syringes.
Formally, abandoned syringes have represented clear signs of desperate people that need heroin because they are psychologically incapable of facing their problems. You could eventually spot them along the streets, and realize that drugging was a sad and cheap solution for them. They looked hopeless, defenseless, alone. For these reasons – I believe – drugging was mainly considered by the generations born in the 50s and 60s as a feature of “social outcasts”, usually harmless and easy to recognize. Drug addicts could be socially pictured and somehow grouped in isolated clear realities. Or at least, this is the kind of tale I used to hear from my parents.

Is Netflix series “How to sell drugs online (fast)” an incitement to narcotics abuse? Illustration by Emeline Barrea for Culturico (copyright).

Although it might be hard to swallow, drugs are not any longer something that you only meet when you are vulnerable. Drugs should not be considered only as a typical symptom of fragility, loneliness or ignorance. On the contrary, they can easily be part of educated teenagers’ life, like drinking a cola is.

However, despite the sociological change, up until now cinematic reconstructions of school realities do not seem to keep up.
In How to sell drugs online (fast), high-school students have integrated drugging in their sphere of experiences. This goes together with having sex and getting drunk. As many real teenagers would do, they take drugs on a daily basis because it is socially accepted among their peers, like going for a drink or smoking a cigarette.
At this point, many parents might be disappointed at me. I should not talk about drugs as though they were “normal” and “socially-acceptable” habits. It is not only deeply inappropriate, but also a profound instigation towards adopting certain self-destructive behaviors.

But, am I so far from the truth?

Our World in Data shows that disorders due to drug consumption are highest among people in their twenties. But such prevalence has been known for decades, already back in the 80s. Young people are generally more open to risky experiences, they seek for a definition of their identity, they fight against authority and usually adopt rebellious behaviors.

Nowadays, what scares parents the most is the acceptability of the gesture: Moritz – the protagonist of the show – and his friend sell pills of Ecstasy. Colored pills, like taking an aspirin and praying to God your flu will disappear. That’s the main reason why parents are now more scared than ever, since in their minds swallowing something that resembles a medicine is much simpler than snorting cocaine. They can easily picture the former as a more likely event.

But that’s the cruel truth we must face, and Netflix is telling us how reality eventually works.

So, here comes the second innovation of the show. Given that drug consumption is socially accepted, given that it is an experience that teenagers will encounter anyway and perhaps even enjoy, we must allow our youngsters to do that openly and with proper precautions. In this direction, in a scene in episode 6, the narrator tells the public how Ecstasy should be consumed – including the dosage – in order to remain relatively safe during the experience and to avoid overdosing.
Furthermore, negative experiences are also related to the quality of the pills, which must be obtained from reliable sources. Interestingly, one of Moritz’s friends consumes low-quality drugs obtained from an unverified source and ends up in hospital.

As I hope you could appreciate at this point of the discussion, illegal drug trafficking is another narrative reason to provide precautions: this example shows that you never know what you are buying, unless you at least start checking the trustworthiness of your supplier.

This Netflix show has accepted the state of play and does not try to deny its existence. On the contrary, it faithfully describes the current sociological background and tries to adjust it.

Overall, I believe it is a positive trend in media communication to adopt educative and impartial discourses as opposed to repressive and critical ones, in order to face certain matters of public interests (I positively discussed this sociological aspect also in this article).
At least in Western countries, we must also consider that the era of education based on prohibition is formally dead. For instance, in the last decade our sons and daughters have started to know more than us about certain aspects of reality, such as technological innovations. Thus, an authority based on paternalistic principles has been losing strength over time (I discussed this topic in detail in this article). Furthermore, prohibitions are risky. Once the access to certain goods or life experiences are denied, immediately the desire to have them increases. So, whoever wants to access the experience must keep it secret. This encourages people to act alone, putting their lives in even more danger.

Thus, I do not believe that publicly criticizing drug consumption would be the best fit to prevent it nowadays. The slogan “don’t do this at home” is becoming ridiculous.
Instead of showing what people should not do, I would start to re-phrase concepts differently, highlighting what people can do to reshape unacceptable aspects of reality.
How to sell drugs online (fast) tells us that drug consumption is a fact. Let’s face it and do not deny it. Let’s accept it as an experience that young people may eventually encounter, designing for them intelligent rules and precautions to safely get through it.

In this direction, one clever example is represented by the campaign “Know the Score”, a site designed to provide frank information about narcotics use, with the aim of instructing young people on the reality of drugs in a friendly fashion. The platform also provides phone contacts or a live chat as a support for users in urgent need.

Most likely, this overall shift in media communication will also help to de-mythicize the sphere of narcotics, finally resizing their global resonance.


Simone Redaelli


Received: 02.07.19, Ready: 28.07.19, Editors: CV, RG.

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