While all the drugs look real, accuracy is only one part of the job. Any fake drug has to be safe for the actor, whether it’s snorted, puffed or injected. Something that hasn’t always been the case on film sets.
Achieving that balance is where prop masters come in. For example, in the crime series Blue Bloods, the prop master, Joel Barkow. In a documentary with Insider, Joel admitted making these drugs seem real is the first hurdle. Second to making the drugs act so.
For example, it’s not enough for prop marijuana(weed) to look authentic; it also has to produce a specific vapor. Substituting tobacco for cannabis may seem like an easy solution. Still, tobacco smoke isn’t as heavy as cannabis, which implies it won’t look convincing enough, especially to an audience familiar with the difference.
Therefore prop masters use cannabis string that lacks CHC for scenes that involve smoking weed.
For other medications like heroin, prop masters use various mixtures of the fake drug depending on if the scene calls for melting it or not. For example, prop masters have found a mixture of pancake waffle mix and cocoa powder for static shots involving heroine display. But for scenes that require the drugs that are actually heated on camera, a different fake heroin mixture is introduced because pancake mix doesn’t melt well, so brown sugar with a little bit of water is used in place of it to create the boiling effect.
Making believable fake drugs that look good in close up shots is one thing, but it gets more complicated when the actor takes these counterfeit drugs on screen.
For scenes that require an actor to inject a needle, the needle doesn’t penetrate the actors’ skin, but it needs to be shown that the fake drug is going into the character’s veins. For this to work, a specially engineered syringe is utilized. This syringe is retractable. As it releases its liquid content, it retracts behind a tube such that it appears to be emptying into the actor’s skin. The same goes in medical dramas like Gray’s anatomy, The resident, etc., where blood needs to be drawn from a patient; this exact process is employed, except this time the syringe simulates the other way around.
For snorting cocaine, inside the roll being used to inhale is a pipe fixed inside the cloth of the actor that does the actual sucking, then the camera angle and lightning does the convincing magic.
More safe fake cocaine options prop masters use is INOSITOL, a vitamin B complex theoretically safe to ingest for the actors without any side effects. Still, the convincing performance by the actors makes it seem otherwise.
Despite the high measures of safety ensured by prop masters, further steps have been established by Hollywood to ensure the fake drugs are safe to be around actors, as these fake drugs could result in side effects, as seen in 1983’s Scarface, where Al Pacino’s suffered nasal damage due to the fake cocaine which in that case was powder baby laxatives. In 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Jonah Hill became ill after inhaling too much vitamin D powder. In 2021, Benedict Cumberbatch revealed he got cigarette poisoning from the filming of Jane Champion’s western flick, The Power of the dog.
To avoid such cases, the directors collaborate with the prop master’s work with actors to prepare them for fake drug ingestion before filming and ensure they undergo medical checkups after production.