Despite a recent fall in the number of Amsterdam's famous weed-friendly coffee shops, the Netherlands remains a pretty liberal place as far as drugs are concerned.
Probably the most internationally visible sign of this laid back attitude to narcotics today is the YouTube channel Drugslab: a "science and education" service produced by BNN-Vara, a public broadcaster in the Netherlands.
Each Friday, the channel uploads new videos with titles like "GHB makes Nellie feel weak," "Rens fights to stay active on Ketamine," and "Bastiaan trips balls on LSD (acid)." The format is simple: two of the show's attractive young presenters sit behind a desk in a studio decked out to look like a college science lab. One of them puts on a heart rate and body temperature monitor and proceeds to snort, smoke, swallow or swig a legal or illegal substance, as requested by viewers in the comments.
“We take drugs so you don't have to,” Jelle Klumpenaar, the show's creator says. “We want to educate youngsters about drugs. Not stimulate them to use drugs, but to reduce the harm if they choose to do so. We provide the do’s and don’ts and show the effects of certain type of drugs, all in the name of science and education.”
Not everyone buys that. A rival channel from America has criticized Drugslab's methods, particularly after the original edit of one episode appeared to show a presenter consuming dangerous levels of a potentially harmful substance. Drugslab's producers insist that this was down to an error in the script, and that they take all necessary safety precautions. But the line between education and entertainment is often blurry at best. One YouTube commentator has labeled it “the BuzzFeed of drugs education.”
On the other hand, using entertainment to make young people pay attention to information about drugs is less novel for the channel's home audience. Drugslab is an online spin-off of Spuiten & Slikken (Shoot & Swallow), an older BNN-Vara sex and drugs education series made for Dutch TV. Basically, "just say no" has not been a thing in the Netherlands for a while.
The Netherlands might be the only place where such a show could be created, but its reach is global. The domestic audience accounts for a quarter of views, with the USA, UK, Russia and Germany bringing in roughly another third, and significant numbers watching from other countries across Europe and the Americas. The channel racked up over 400,000 subscribers in a little over nine months — not bad for a Dutch language show (available with English subtitles on YouTube).
Apart from the novelty of the concept, and the inherent fascination that mind-altering substances hold for many people, a lot the show's popularity surely comes down to the presenters: Nellie Benner, Rens Polman and Bastiaan Rosman. Their personalities are also vital to the success of the show's concept. In the show, and in person, they give no trace of a "been-there-done-that" attitude towards drugs; it is clear that psychoactives are a novelty rather than a central part of their lives.
We caught up with them to find out what it's like getting off your face on camera for a living.
What were you doing before Drugslab? How did you get involved in the show?
Rens: I was making videos on YouTube already, and I was also in a band. I'm still in a band. That's how I got to know the founder of Drugslab, because he was in the YouTube world as well.
Nellie: I'm an art therapist and I went to acting school. So I was doing a lot of acting, and I did a bit of art therapy one day a week. I also did a little music program. That was my first hosting job. Rens and I are at the same management company and I said I wanted to go to BNN, the Dutch television network, so they asked me if I wanted to do this show.
Bastiaan: I'm still studying media studies at university. Next month I'll go back to studies while I continue to make the program. BNN has an academy for things like hosts, directors, cameramen... I was in the auditions for hosting and made it to the last five, but didn't win. Then, three months later BNN called me back and asked if I will come and do Drugslab. I was like “Yes! I will do it! Of course.”
Bastiaan: Immediately I was like “Yes!,” because I like the concept and it was a chance, you know, to be a host on BNN.
Rens: And you like drugs!
Bastiaan: You make it sounds like I'm an addict!
Rens: It was a joke, it was a joke.
Did you have reservations about taking a gig that involves taking drugs on camera?
Bastiaan: I wasn't like, “Should I do it: yes or no? I was like: Yes!”
Nellie: I had to think about it. I spoke to a lot of people. It was a difficult decision. I was already in media then. But when I was younger I used to watch Shoot & Swallow a lot, and I really liked it and I really liked the hostess. So then I said yes. I'm a therapist, and I used to work with children who have problems, and also parents who have problems like addiction. So, I thought maybe they don't take me seriously any more. Or with the acting, they might think, “Oh, she's only the girl who uses drugs on the internet.” But then I thought: “No, if I stand behind that, then I think it's going to be OK because I believe in it.” And that's what happened. At first I was bit scared for my own career, but now I think it's even better for my career. It was a risky thing, though.
Rens: I was thinking, “Yeah, well, I'm interested in drugs but I don't know if I want to the world to know it.” But after a while I said yes. It's a program with such a good goal. That's why I make it. I stand behind the concept so much that it doesn't matter what other people think. That was the decision for me.
I think a lot of people outside the Netherlands are quite surprised the show exists; what was it like for you when you heard about it?
Rens: Well in the Netherlands we are kind of used to programs like this because we have a program on television for 12 years now which is about sex and drugs (Shoot & Swallow). So, using drugs on camera is not normal, but we know it here in Holland. But for the rest of the world it's crazy, and that's what makes Drugslab special, because this is the first program from Holland with people using drugs on camera for the rest of the world. That's what makes it so cool, that we can teach people how to use drugs in the rest of the world as well.
It looks like you've become quite close through the show?
Rens: Right at the start we had a meeting with each other just to drink something in the city and find out if this is a good group. That was a priority for me. Because if I didn't feel good with the group, the other people, then I wouldn't do it. But immediately there was a click, and we had fun, we had a great time.
Nellie: It was a good connection. I think that's also quite important. Because we do crazy stuff together sometimes.
Bastiaan: People ask if we are friends in real life also, but we are. We see each other a lot.
Nellie: We made friends in a really short time. We really have to trust each other, and it's also funny because you say things or feel things... sometimes when we do a drug like a psychedelic or something you're walls come down. You're so pure. We just know everything about each other I guess, in a very short time.
What do your families think?
Rens: My mother said, “You should do it because its a good program. Don't do it only because you want to do drugs, do it with a message”. But my father, he was scared as fuck. He thought that I would die or become addicted or something, because he knew nothing about drugs. And that was the thing. That's why I make this program, because now he knows a lot more about drugs and he isn't scared any more. He knows that ecstasy is not the same as heroin. To begin with, that was what he thought. That's a good thing, I guess.
Bastiaan: My mother doesn't like it but she's proud because I'm a host on BNN. She watched one time and after that she doesn't watch it any more. My father is so proud though. He calls me every day to say, “You have so many views!” He likes it so much. He has an app where he can see how many views we have every day and he always looks at it. Then he calls me. He's so funny. For his own work he often visits people in their homes. Sometimes people are like “Oh, Rosman, I know this name. Is your son Bastiaan Rosman from Drugslab?” He's so proud!
Nellie: For me it was a bit difficult, because my mother died a few months before they asked me to do the show. It was a strange year. But she was a very open minded person. My father wanted me to go to law school and be a lawyer, and my mother said, “No, study art and do acting.” When my mother died and I asked my father, “What do you think?” I was expecting him to say “No, don't do it, that's not good for your career, and drugs are bad.” Instead he said [puts on a deep voice] “Darling, do whatever makes you happy. I think it's awesome. Just live your life.” It's funny, but our bond and the success of the show, and doing some cool things and also all the contact with people all around the world — it sounds a bit stupid — but that gave me strength at a really difficult time.
What about drugs in your own lives? Did you have much experience before starting the show?
Rens: I'd experimented a little. I did MDMA once before the show. Actually I think that if I hadn't done MDMA before, I wouldn't have done the show. It was an eye-opener for me. I thought, “it's not as scary as people think.” I had definitely experimented a couple of times with hash and weed, and once with mushrooms but it was too heavy.
Nellie: About seven years ago, I thought that people who are trying drugs are junkies and you definitely become an addict if you try drugs. I heard that my best friend tried MDMA and I was totally freaked out. I was like, “What the fuck is happening?” I was searching on the internet and I almost called her parents to help her. Then, I think one year later I tried it myself. I think that's the main thing, also with the war on drugs — forbidding drugs doesn't work. I think if you're friends try it, or you've heard something about it, on some level you're going to be a bit curious. And I think this is the better approach — just talk about it, be honest about it. We always say, “drug use is never without risk.” You have to know that, but there are always risks in your life.
Rens: It's important to talk about it and be open about drugs, because otherwise the risks are bigger. If you don't know how to use MDMA but you want to try it, then maybe you take too much, you know? So I think it's better to be open about it, rather than act like it's the scariest thing in the world.
Nellie: I also try to give a message on my Instagram. I say, “Just try to have a happy life. Take good care of yourself, eat good..." They are just stupid things, but I also want to show that for us it is not normal to use drugs every day, or every week, or at every party. We also want to show that it has to be special. People might go through a period when they take drugs more regularly, and that's OK. But in the end, everything has to be in balance, and we are just three stupid fucks. The main thing in the show is that we are just three normal people... we could be your friends. At least I hope so.
What have been your most and least favorite experiences during filming?
Bastiaan: Oh, when I was doing 2C-E. I was tripping so hard, but it was so, so scary, because I saw people who had died, and, oh no, I didn't like it. And then, after the trip I was home and I was crying so hard because I was in shock. I was like, “What the fuck was happening with me.” So that was the one I liked least. The thing that I liked most was 2C-B (watch above) because you see all the different colors, and when people move their hand you see like five hands. It was so fun. That's what I liked the most.
Nellie: Yeah you were really panicking on 2C-E.
Rens: You were tripping balls.
Nellie: And when I did it, it didn't work on me. It was strange. But that's also. why we are each going to try everything. Sometimes people say, "yeah but you already did that." But we can also show that everything works differently on different bodies. For me, nothing happened. Salvia was the worst, though. It was really short, it was less than five minutes, but I was stuck in the earth. It was like the world was imploding and I didn't have control anymore. I knew I was tripping, but I really thought I was stuck in the earth. It was really scary. Then I knew what a bad trip was, because before that I didn't understand.
The best? Hmm, that's difficult! I think MDMA is the best drug in the world. That feeling is indescribable; the love feeling. And I really liked the magic mushrooms because my walls came down and I felt very pure, like a child. I learned that if I just be myself, it's OK. I really learned that from that.
Rens: For me the most beautiful experience was with MDA.
Nellie: Oh yeah
Rens: That was so intense. Its like the MDMA feeling, but much stronger and a little more psychedelic. And I was still in control, which I liked. But the love feeling is like MDMA. It's indescribable, but MDA is way stronger. That was so beautiful. For four or five days afterwards I still had a good feeling because it was such a wonderful experience... it was really an experience I learned from. I was totally at peace, like I was reset. My body was at peace, my mind was at peace. I felt reset. For four or five days afterwards still. So that was very nice.
The worst experience was mushrooms, I guess. I got a little scared, and it got a little bit personal for me. With psychedelics sometimes I feel very insecure. So, I don't feel comfortable with myself and I don't know what's happening. And I actually don't like it. I think, "why do I feel so weird and no, no, I don't want to say this, but why am I saying it."
Nellie: Yeah you can get a little bit of paranoia.
Rens: Yeah, like that. It's quite difficult.
Nellie: And we always have a camera on our face. That's sometimes difficult with the psychedelics. You sometimes want to go lay down and just relax, but you're still working. We are still working all the time. That's sometimes difficult.
Rens: Yeah, we are the only ones who are tripping or using drugs. You are all the time the only one! Everyone else is just normal at work.
Bastiaan: But sometimes it's so sad because when you use ecstasy or MDMA you are so happy or feel so much love and nobody feels what you are feeling in that moment. So then it's boring.
Nellie: Sometimes it is really work. You think “OK, I'm tripping balls right here”, and the others are like: “We have to go on the schedule, we just have to get one more shot.” And you're standing there like, “Oh my God, my world is imploding”.
Rens: The setting is not the best setting.
Nellie: They try to make it the best for us.
Bastiaan: They are nice, and they bring you everything that you want in the moment. It's very nice, you know. If you are tripping there and you want something, you're like “I want ice cream.” They go out and five minutes later you have ice cream. You can get everything that you want. They make it very comfortable.
Rens: It also depends on the drug. I used cocaine and I LOVED that there was a camera. And I LOVED that people were looking at me.
Nellie: I hated him. I really hated him. He was talking so much, all the time.
Rens: That's the perfect setting for coke! I once did it besides the show in a total different setting — in a club. No one was listening to me and no one was talking to me! I didn't like that. So it depends on the drug what kind of setting is perfect. It's funny.
What about embarrassing moments while you're high?
Nellie: If there's something really personal, or that we don't want that to be public or something, then we can say that. We have a say in the edit of the episode, but I don't think that ever happens.
Rens: There was one time with the poppers episode, because I was jerking off.
Nellie & Bastiaan [laughter].
Rens: I was jerking off, and at first there wasn't music playing over the moment that I came. So you hear music, then it stopped, then you heard [breathes heavily] and that was the only thing you heard. So I called the editor and said, "I want music over that moment!" It was too awkward!
Bastiaan: Sometimes because of the drugs you are too honest and after I'm like, “Oh shit, what did I say.” But we can tell them if we don't like the edit and they take it out.
Are there any drugs that are definitely off limits? I've seen people request meth in the comments...
Nellie: Yeah, well meth is not going to happen. We work together in a large team and they tell us what to do and what not to do. We of course have our limits. So some substances which are very addictive or just not good like meth or krokodil won't be featured. We say, "We try drugs so you don't have to, but if you want to try do so as safe as possible." With some drugs we just think it isn't worth it.
Rens: Also, if we try it, people will try it too. And that's a big thing. Maybe you can smoke heroin in a safe environment and only do it once. But if we smoke heroin in the studio, people are going to do it too, and that's a bad thing because we made people use heroin. That's not the goal.
So there's a contradiction between trying drugs so people don't have to, and making it look OK to do them?
Rens: Drugs aren't bad, you know. If you use it right, and use it as an extra, you can use a thing sometimes. People drink beer at the weekend as well. That's also a drug. People drink coffee. Of course, there are always people who are doing drugs; that's the point of life — you search for nice things and experiences.
Bastiaan: We are doing drugs so you don't have to do it. But if you want to do, then we show you how to do it right.
Next up, here's how people buy drugs off the internet.