Artistic License Pharmacology
aka: You Fail Pharmacology Forever

Ah, the wonderful world of medications, drugs, and poisons. Staples of Murder Mysteries and Medical Dramas, and not too infrequently plot devices in Science Fiction (hard or otherwise). Sadly though, there are some writers who never seem to do their homework on the substances in question. Books, screenplays, etc. from such writers often cause those knowledgable of such things to want to ask, "Dude, what have you been smoking?" The absolute worst examples may lead to being Killed Off for Real.

Related to Artistic License Biology and Artistic License Medicine. See also This Is Your Index on Drugs and Toxic Tropes. That Old-Time Prescription is a subversion. A visit to Erowid is often recommended as an antidote to this in regard to many drugs.


Subtropes:


The following examples do not fit any subtropes:

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    Anime And Manga 
  • Death Note features a criminal who, according to his bio, is extremely violent and deranged because he is a marijuana addict. Marijuana's effects do not include violent criminal behavior. This could be due to Marijuana Is LSD, or because marijuana use is highly stigmatized in Japan, to the point where Paul McCartney wasn't allowed into the country for ten years following a pot bust.
  • In the English dub of Digimon Adventure, Tai and Izzy search Machinedramon's city for aspirin after Kari develops a fever during the Dark Masters arc. In reality, most pharmacists recommend avoiding the use of aspirin in children under twelve, particularly for controlling viral symptoms, as this can increase the child's risk of developing a serious condition called Reye's syndrome; acetaminophen or ibuprofen would have been safer choices for Kari.
  • One Nobunaga no Chef arc involves Kennyo trying to poison Nobunaga by serving him several nutmeg macarons. Nobunaga almost immediately collapsed after eating them, despite the fact that: 1) The amount of nutmegs placed in 3 macarons are nowhere near enough to cause poisoning, 2) Fatal nutmeg poisoning is very rare, 3) Nutmeg intoxication takes a few hours after consumption to reach its effects.

    Comic Books 
  • Every comic-book use of drugs fails miserably at pharmacology, especially the Batman villain Scarecrow, since his gimmick is a hallucinatory "fear gas." Hallucinogens take 30-90 minutes to circulate to the brain and actually cause hallucinations (and almost all are administered orally). Hallucinations are also extremely unpredictable and are usually caused by setting and expectations before ingesting the drug and most people can easily tell a hallucination from reality, although the Scarecrow does supply some set up by naming it a fear gas. In short, the drug onset is unlikely, the route of administration is atypical, and most importantly, the effects are wrong. Some drugs might fit:
    • Salvia Divinorum, which can be smoked. Inhalable, rapid onset, etc etc. Not nearly nasty enough to use as a weapon... but such chemicals do exist and can have most unpleasant effects.
      • If you think the effects of salvia are not capable of inducing fear to the degree that it could be used as a weapon, you've obviously never smoked it. "Rapid onset" means just a few seconds, a minute at most. The reason it hasn't caught on as a party drug is that large doses (which are actually still very small) can cause the person to experience horrifying hallucinations.
      • It also causes a very short period of sharp decrease in muscle tonus which is usually reported as disconcerting. It may be also pretty surprising for anyone truing to smoke salvia while standing. And hallucinations usually occurs in massive dosages in already phobic or anxious subjects. Hallucinations are endogenous, so it is technically impossible to create a drug that will predictably cause a repeatable horrifying hallucination in every recipient.
    • DMT, without an MAO inhibitor, can be smoked - nearly instant onset, incredibly strong effects. Without an MAO inhibitor, it only lasts ten minutes, with one it lasts much longer. See also 'datura' also called devil's weed or jimsonweed, which is notorious for its 'true' hallucinations, often indistinguishable for reality.
    • An important thing to remember about onset time is that it's vastly dependent on route of administration, orally ingested drugs take a longer time to work because they have to be absorbed through the stomach lining and it takes awhile for them to filter into the bloodstream, inhalation is much faster as the drug goes directly from the lungs into the blood stream, most smoked or inhaled drugs will start to show effects within a few minutes possibly even a few seconds, with peak effects kicking in within 5-20 minutes.
  • The Marvel Comics one-shot title "Carnage: Mind Bomb" shows the side effects to a vitamin c overdose as being a severe shock to the nervous system. Dr. Kurtz, after blasting Carnage with a sonic pistol to keep him at bay, injects Cletus Kasady with an overdose of vitamin c which causes the symbiote to disconnect from Kasady's brain and body. At best, Cletus would suffer indigestion if it had been taken orally but by injection any excess would be filtered out with no such side effects. This sort of happens as the vitamin c is metabolized out quickly(in minutes, but the writers had the good sense to tell us that his metabolism was much higher than normal so it didn't seem too much like magic or convenience) and the symbiote reconnects. This use of vitamin c is just odd, considering that Dr. Kurtz also injects him with "classified" drugs as well to make Carnage more talkative and open, so why not do the same with the first injection?

    Film 
  • Amazingly mostly averted in Crank. Although medical professionals do not agree on how long someone could live without adrenaline, all agree that the symptoms are spot-on and the time frame is not that unrealistic. The description of what the Beijing Cocktail did and what he can do to circumvent its effects is also 100% accurate pharmacology.
  • In one scene of Meet the Parents, Greg's anxiety becomes so severe he has to treat it by stuffing multiple pieces of nicotine gum in his mouth like a chipmunk and chewing it. Nicotine gum is not supposed to be chewed, but instead placed between the gums and the cheek so that the nicotine can be absorbed through the mucosal membranes over a longer period of time. Chewing the gum causes all of the nicotine to be released at once, possibly leading to an overdose which, though not necessarily fatal, can manifest as a number of different symptoms that will make the user very uncomfortable to say the least.
  • Played with in Casino Royale (2006). This trope seemingly is played straight with the scene where Le Chiffre's girlfriend slips the poison in Bond's drink. The substance he is poisoned with, digitalis, generally takes several hours to manifest by which point the salt and water emesis which Bond attempts would have been ineffective. It continues to be played straight as Bond is in tachycardia with a heart rate of 135 BPM; digitalis poisoning generally causes bradycardia, or slowing of heart rate. However the trope is played with and averted in the end, as severe digitalis toxicity can in fact produce tachycardia.

    Literature 
  • More than one classic mystery fiction writer assumed that aspirin was not just a pain reliever but a sedative as well. Ngaio Marsh was especially prone to having characters take aspirin as an insomnia remedy. In one novel, it was even used as a knockout drug.
    • To a certain degree, Truth in Television. Many people treat aspirin as if it's a sedative, and if you have a headache or a backache, relieving the pain will help you get to sleep. The placebo effect works particularly well on problems like insomnia.
  • Poisoned weapons in media are sometimes used to instantly kill an enemy of superior skill if the user even gets a scratch in.
    • Used in Hamlet, where it was intended to kill no matter who 'won' (and be slow enough that the poisoner would not be suspected in this case).
    • Averted in A Song of Ice and Fire. The poison that Oberyn Martell uses to kill Gregor Clegane takes weeks or months to kill him. This aversion is itself subverted in that the poison he used should have been fatal in minutes, as soon as it reached his heart, but it was "thickened" somehow to prolong the suffering.
  • Snow used assassination by poison to rise to power in The Hunger Games. Apparently the Capitol can neither perform autopsies nor test surfaces for presence of toxins.note  In Mockingjay, Katniss describes morphling as making her feel numb and empty. For opiate addicts (who've begun to grow 'immune' to the effects) this may be the case, but morphine makes non-addicts feel relaxed, warm and happy, even through emotional depression.

    Live Action TV 
  • Arrow: It starts becoming a bit of a plot point for a couple of episodes that Laurel is guiltily taking pills every so often from a bottle clearly labelled "Benzodiazepine", and eventually gets caught by the police, where it's found she stole those pills from her father and has tested positive for opiates. However, the first problem is that "Benzodiazepine" refers to a group of drugs rather than one particular drug, and the second problem is that benzodiazepines are sedative drugs used for anxiety and insomnia (Valium and Ativan are two common benzodiazepines), they are most certainly not opiates, nor are they anything like them apart from being potentially highly addictive.
  • Chuck: Likes poisons. One particular example had an enemy spy inject herself with a large quantity of ricin to avoid capture, because "everyone talks". She dies instantly, despite the fact that ricin can take days to work, slowly shutting down its victim's organs and rendering them in a position of considerable pain. Just tell yourself that the large syringe had hit a major blood vessel and she died of internal bleeding.
  • Criminal Minds: You might be intrigued to see a murderer in one episode killing his victims by instructing them to kill themselves, which they do obediently after he blows a certain muscle relaxant at their faces. As this Criminal Minds Wiki entry points out, this was exaggerated from urban legends about scopolamine.
  • CSI: The season 12 episode "Brain Doe" features an MMA fighter who uses dimethyltryptamine, DMT, as a performance-enhancing drug. In real life, it's an extremely powerful hallucinogen. Presumably, the writers read about athletes using the other DMT, the designer steroid desoxymethyltestosterone, and mistook it for the drug...
  • Dexter:
    • The sedative he uses on his victims (which also incidentally takes effect immediately) is a real-life tranquilizer, used to sedate elephants. Apparently, getting it on a human's skin can kill them. Maybe he dilutes it?
    • Carfentanil (tradename Wildnil), a chemical relative of fentanyl, is the most potent opiate. 10,000 times stronger than morphine, it is used for large animals. Yes, a small amount on your skin can kill you.
    • A bottle of water is returned from the lab, analysed as containing "40% alprazolam" — a higher concentration than an alprazolam tablet, and certainly enough that it wouldn't taste anything like water. A swig of it would be a lethal dose.
  • Doctor Who usually avoids this by not naming substances or using entirely fictional ones, but "The Mark of the Rani" gets things badly wrong when the Doctor and Peri survive a booby trap claimed to involve mustard gas without ill effects, by wearing minimalist gas masks that only cover their noses and mouths (and look more like medical gas administration masks than anything protective). In reality, the effects of mustard gas on skin and eyes would have killed them. Slowly and horribly.
  • General Hospital: An 80s story arc had a character get Easy Amnesia from exposure to a chemical that occasionally produces short term memory loss, but far more often results in crippling brain damage from even mild exposure.
  • Inspector Lynley: This winds up being a plot point in the episode Missing Joseph where Lynley and Havers find it incredibly unlikely that a trained herbalist like Juliet Spence would mistake water hemlock for wild parsnip, which wound up in the meal she made for herself and the local vicar, which killed him but only sickened her since she induced vomiting in herself as soon as she felt ill. For most of the episode they operate under the assumption that someone else slipped it into the food, but turns out it was Juliet all along, and the whole making herself vomit was part of the plan so they wouldn't suspect her. And the vicar? Her own husband, though she had faked her death years before and killed him because he found out that her daughter wasn't actually hers and had in fact been stolen from her real mother.
  • LOST: In one episode Urley is desperately searching plane wreckage for clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, to control his hallucinations. It is unlikely this drug would help. Later, Jack, a medical doctor who should know better, describes clonazepam as an antipsychotic, which it definitely is not.
  • Merlin: Gaius must be a truly magnificent magician, because he is an absolutely terrible herbalist. Valerian would have very little use for an injury. Fenugreek is an herb used to increase a mother's milk supply, not "heal" someone on the brink of death. The list goes on. The writers must have a big piece of paper hung on a wall with a list of herbs they thought sounded cool and a large supply of darts.
  • Midsomer Murders: In one episode an old lady took a large amount of pills, wrote a suicide letter, had tea and then confessed to everything to the detectives before oh-so-conveniently dying before she could be arrested.
  • Revolution: In the pilot, it's highly unlikely that the asthma inhaler Grace uses to treat Danny has a shelf life anywhere near 15 years, especially without temperature controls. Grace does appear to have access to some high technology and a larger conspiracy, so it's possible new medications are being manufactured somewhere.
    • Even old medicine probably still has some of the active constituent in it, due to the half-life effect. The inhaler was probably still better than nothing. Also, asthma attacks will resolve on their own (assuming you don't suffocate in the meantime); medicine just reduces severity and duration.
  • Outlander: Claire says monk's hood (aconite) has no known medicinal uses. In reality it has several, well known since ancient times, though since it's highly toxic in larger doses other medications are used now. This might be excused as just ignorance, except she is a trained nurse and highly knowledgeable of herbs so you'd expect she'd know this.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • In For Better or for Worse, Deanna gets pregnant with her and Michael's first child, Meredith, by accident. She claimed she was switching birth control prescriptions and didn't know that there would be a period of increased fertility between cycling off the old meds and starting the new. Although not everyone knows this side effect, Deanna is a pharmacist and admits she should have realized the risk.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Averted apparently in the d20 games style. It's not a perfect simulation, but the fact that there's an onset time you have to sit out has made some players turn away from poisoned dartguns as a way to convince distant enemies to go to sleep in the modern-set Spy Craft game.

    Video Games 
  • Tsukihime, Kohaku uses the dried crushed seeds of Korean morning glories (aka datura) to give several characters hallucinations and make them think they're going insane. So far so good, but it also depicts the effects of the hallucination as giving the victim a sort of hypnotized pseudo-mind control state, where Kohaku can whisper to them something while unconscious and have them believe her.
  • In Left 4 Dead, painkillers are a useful healing item, and you down the entire bottle in a second without water. Louis is famous because of this.
    • Judging from the rattling there are only a few pills left in the bottle, making this less likely to just kill the survivor.
  • To the Moon: Some beta-blockers, especially propanolol, are indeed used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (although the treatment is still considered experimental), but they usually does not induce amnesia (what they do is more in the line of allowing someone to relive a traumatic memory without experiencing the trauma). There is no way beta-blockers could have completely erased all the memories of Johnny's life with his brother, except maybe as an incredibly rare and unexpected side-effect. And the idea that it could have been done on purpose in a controlled way, as implied in the game, is even more absurd.
  • In the Director's Cut edition of Scratches, the brief sequel/epilogue reveals that the mother of the game's Madwoman in the Attic had been taking Thalidomide, presumably accounting for her child's deformities. But thalidomide is specifically responsible for phocomelia, a birth defect in which the limbs are underdeveloped and flipper-like. Robin may be grotesque, but he's not a phocomeliac, and wouldn't be very scary if he were.

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • The weblog Polite Dissent often reports on such misuses in comic books and TV shows, primarily pointing out when the wrong drugs are being used, super heroes blandly hand out DEA Controlled Substances, and where the dosages are ridiculously off. The author of the blog is a comic book fan and a licensed doctor, so the articles can be quite informative. He also does surprisingly comprehensive write-ups of House from the same perspective.

    Western Animation 
  • An episode of The Simpsons had Lisa being put on antidepressants and immediately falling into a blissful and oblivious state complete with hallucinations. In real life antidepressants simply get you back to normal; they don't give you instant happiness. And they certainly don't cause visual hallucinations.
    • While it is not the normal reaction, there is a bit of truth to this one. Anti-Depressants when given to a bipolar individual can make them go into a manic episode. They also can cause mood imbalances when they're first started while the body acclimates, but nothing so extreme.
    • They also take a while to take effect (sometimes several weeks); it wouldn't be the instant mood lift that Lisa got.

    Real Life 


Side effects may include, but are not limited to, Headache, Watery Eyes, Spontaneous Human Combustion and Dry-Mouth. Ask your doctor if this Trope is right for you...

Alternative Title(s): Artistic Licence Pharmacology, You Fail Pharmacology Forever

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtisticLicensePharmacology?from=Main.YouFailPharmacologyForever