Drugslab: The Dutch Drug Education Show for Youths

By Jenny Valentish 01/10/17

In each YouTube episode, the young presenters try a different drug such as LSD, ecstasy, ketamine, 2-CB, amphetamine, and mushrooms.

Drugslab: The Dutch Drug Ed Show for Youths
In the name of science and harm reduction.

The studio is set up like an old-school science lab: blackboard, beakers, a basin. It’s pleasingly kitsch. In the foreground, two fresh-faced presenters are having a chat at the bench.

“Well, ‘powerhouse,’” teases the girl, handing the boy a dumbbell, “let’s see how this goes.”

He tries a few bicep curls and struggles. “Gee, that’s really heavy.”

The boy is pale and slight, wearing the sort of sweater that might be gifted by a maiden aunt at Christmas. Still, the reason he’s finding the task difficult is because he’s just taken a dose of the "date-rape drug" GHB.

The girl laughs and mimics a vigorous pumping movement. “Normally you’d do it like this, of course.”

Next, a laptop is produced. We can’t see it, but there’s a porno playing on the screen. The boy stares at it intently, headphones in.

“It… I do feel like having sex,” he says afterwards.

“You started to breathe harder and you were grinding against your chair,” the girl points out, in the sort of cheerful, youth-TV voice normally reserved for BMX coverage or something wholesome.

This is a pretty typical episode of Drugslab, a Dutch show uploaded to YouTube that can easily attract more than half a million views per 10-minute slot. The three presenters take turns trying different drugs: amphetamine, hash, LSD, ecstasy, nitrous oxide, poppers, ketamine, cannabis, pure caffeine, magic mushrooms, MDMA crystals, 2-CB, Ritalin. A new video is posted every Friday, and in the comments section viewers can suggest what should be next. But it’s not a spoof, and it’s not a subversive stunt.

Since youth broadcaster BNN started airing in the Netherlands in 1997, it has been renowned for pushing boundaries and breaking taboos. The original incarnation of Drugslab came from the long-running talk show Spuiten en Slikken (shoot and swallow), dedicated to sexuality and drug use. Now it’s got its own YouTube channel to reach a wider audience.

The official blurb might insist that Drugslab is “in the name of science,” but really, it’s in the name of harm reduction. The show’s creator, Jelle Klumpenaar, tells The Fix that he aims to provide better information about safe drug use than can generally be found by kids on the internet. In each episode the presenters discuss the history of a drug, its potential medical uses, its effects and harms, what it’s likely to be cut with, its half-life, and how to best take it safely—all this while one of the pair “trips balls,” as they say.

Klumpenaar explains, “When Spuiten en Slikken began around 10 years ago, even politicians were discussing it. Opinions varied. Some thought it was good that young people were finally being properly informed, and others thought that it would encourage drug use or give young people the wrong ideas about sex. Yet to this day, the show is providing young people in the Netherlands with information about sex and drugs in an accessible and responsible way.”

Despite these sensible intentions, it’s hard to imagine any country but the Netherlands daring to produce such a show. In the Netherlands, drug policy might be described as the “blind eye” approach, though officially it’s a four-pronged attack: to prevent recreational use and to rehabilitate users; to reduce harm to users; to diminish public nuisance; and to combat production and supply. Yet while all drugs are illegal—yes, even the cannabis and trips sold freely in cafes—it’s only large-scale activity that is prosecuted. No legal action is taken for possession of small quantities for personal use. Thus, as Klumpenaar confirms, “There was nothing stopping us from making this show.”

The three presenters—25-year-old singer-songwriter Rens Polman, 30-year-old actress Nellie Benner and 23-year-old university student Bastiaan Rosman—are mates in real life, which seems to be a pretty integral factor. Firstly, it means they’re demonstrating the role that friends ought to play in advising each other how to take drugs safely. Secondly, they keep the atmosphere light and nurturing.

“I feel very comfortable with the whole team,” Polman tells us. “That was a serious condition for me when I was deciding if I wanted to do Drugslab. I can be open with the whole crew and everybody is taking care of the drug user. And because drugs often strengthen your feelings, that’s very important. Otherwise you’ll probably have a lot of bad trips.”

Things never get too dark. Pleas in the comment section to cover methamphetamine and heroin have as yet gone unanswered, and there’s an innocence and curiosity to each episode. Two presenters will take part, perhaps playing rock-paper-scissors to see which will be the human guinea pig. The other has the job of informal interviewer, which seems almost as fun. They’ll try arm wrestling the drug-afflicted party to test their strength, or give them cuddly toys to pet, or a mirror to stare into. They’ll ask the subject to spit, to see how much saliva they have, or will check the dilation of their pupils.

It’s a controlled environment, of course. Klumpenaar explains that the drug dosage is adjusted to each presenter. The subjects are also hooked up to a heart monitor, which inevitably rises, though Polman reckons that’s as much to do with nerves, as of the effects of the drug itself. Temperature is also monitored.

Benner confirms they have a regular first-aid guy on set, Mark. “He’s awesome and always nearby,” she says. “He knows everything about all kind of drugs and how to handle bad trips. We learn a lot, but I'm not a doctor. More important is that we teach people how to avoid dangerous situations. Try drugs as safely as possible. If something goes really wrong, always call the emergency number.”

Many harm-reduction tips are discussed: keeping hydrated while on stimulants, but only one to two glasses per hour to avoid water intoxication; lining the stomach with foods that keep vitamin C and sodium levels steady; keeping friends informed of what dosage has been consumed; avoiding combining alcohol with central nervous system depressants; bearing in mind that natural ingredients in herbal highs doesn’t mean they’re the healthier option. When Polman’s dose of GHB fails to really kick in after 90 minutes, he takes more, but wags a finger at the camera: “Only half your original dose.” Benner adds, “Always mix your GHB with water or a soft drink. It’s a biting substance and may damage your esophagus.”

Occasionally things go a little pear-shaped. When Polman takes speed, he’s handed a skipping rope. “I don’t like it, I feel tired,” he complains, as his BPM goes up to 180. Then he retches in the sink. Still, he observes, the speed gives him the urge to take more. At this, Rosman advises him, “That only lengthens the trip, but it doesn’t stimulate the peaks and make you higher. So taking more is pointless.”

Polman tells The Fix he has far fonder memories of the XTC episode (“the vibe was really good—in my opinion, not only for me, but for the whole team”), and actually, the Netherlands is a major producer of synthetic "party" drugs. While these might be viewed as the least addictive substances, they can be the most unpredictable in terms of dose and content. Thankfully, since the early 1990s, pill-testing has been available throughout the Netherlands. Members of the public can bring their stash into the labs of the Drugs Information and Monitoring System (DIMS), which are found in major cities. The service also has a presence at festivals and events as part of its Safe House Campaign, and warnings about bad batches of pills are often televised.

The idea of harm reduction as an overarching policy is pretty alien to the United States, in which harm reduction is generally limited to individual programs, such as needle exchange. That’s one reason Drugslab has its own YouTube channel, viewable beyond the confines of the Netherlands.

“We realized that our content is also highly relevant to people in other countries,” says Klumpenaar. “In countries other than the Netherlands, there is still a big taboo around these subjects and, in these countries in particular, sound information about drugs is important and still scarce. For this reason, we made our content accessible for the rest of the world by subtitling it in English.”

For all its bright colors and hijinks, Drugslab aims to be a serious public service announcement, keeping users safer. Its message amplifies the underlying ethos of harm reduction—that it’s better the devil you know. 

Jenny Valentish is an Australian-based journalist and the author of non-fiction book Woman of Substances (Black Inc, June 2017).

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Jenny Valentish is a journalist who covers alcohol and other drug issues for Australian newspapers. Her third book, Woman of Substances, published in June 2017, is an investigation into female substance dependence. Find Jenny on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.