British Board of Film Classification

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Drugs

Frank Sinatra holding out his arm, The Man With The Golden Arm 1955

Films depicting drug misuse have been a perennial concern of the BBFC (and society) for many years. Images of drug misuse were forbidden from films as early as 1915, not because there was a significant societal problem (as now) but because it was thought that scenes depicting drug misuse might arouse curiosity. In its early days, the BBFC had only two rules regarding films, eg no 'materialisation' of the figure of Christ and no nudity, but soon dozens of others followed, including no depiction of 'the drug habit e.g. opium, morphia, cocaine, etc'.

Narcotics such as morphine and cocaine were popular (and not illegal) at the turn of the 20th century. The open trade of such stimulants was restricted by emergency legislation (as were pub opening hours) in order to help the war effort. These restrictions were later extended and codified by the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971).

By the time of the 1960s and the appearance of a counter-culture that used drugs as part of its lifestyle, the problem was no longer a question of preventing viewers from gaining 'dangerous knowledge', but rather of preventing drug misuse from appearing attractive. In 1967, a minor American film portraying the effects of LSD was banned on the advice of psychiatrists who concluded the film was 'inaccurate and meretricious'. The BBFC rejected the film again on video in 1988, and continues to look very carefully at works that may appear to portray drug use as a 'free ride'.

Seth Rogen as Dale Denton and James Franco as Saul Silver, Pineapple Express 2008

The BBFC's Guidelines prohibit 'detailed portrayal of illegal drug use which may cause harm to public health or morals' even at the adult 18 level. The tests for these two concerns become increasingly more strict down through the age ratings, particularly in works aimed at children. No work taken as a whole may promote the misuse of drugs and any detailed portrayal of drug misuse likely to promote or glamorise the activity may be cut. Works which show drug misuse while emphasising the dangers may receive a less restrictive age rating than works that present drug misuse in a neutral manner.

At U, the Guidelines state ‘no references to illegal drugs or drug misuse unless they are infrequent and innocuous, or there is a clear educational purpose or anti-drug message suitable for young children’.

At PG, ‘references to illegal drugs or drug misuse must be innocuous or carry a suitable anti-drug message'.

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