Faking It: This Is What Movie Drugs Are Actually Made Of

Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Welcome to Faking It, our new monthly guide to the magic of filmmaking. What exactly are two actors doing when they're "having sex" on camera? How do they "do drugs"? What are those phony cigarettes really made of? Join us as we explore the not-so-glamorous underground of faking sex, drugs, violence, and more.
What makes a good drug scene so memorable? Is it the dramatic way in which Penny Lane ingests a handful of quaaludes? Or the glamorous appeal of Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz celebrating their nuptials with a coke fest in Blow? Or even Mia Wallace's dainty snorting of copious amounts of heroin in Pulp Fiction?
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Maybe it's just as Mark Renton says in the opening scene of Trainspotting: "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"
All I know is, when done right, drug scenes can elevate a movie to cult status. And with T2 Trainspotting in theaters, I've been thinking a lot about what goes into making them. What's in that white powder? Where does one buy fake joints? And how, exactly, do actors shoot up without actually injecting?
To find out, I asked Jeff Butcher and Eric Cheripka, prop masters who have worked on films like The Wrestler (2008) and American Gangster (2007), respectively, about what it takes to create a believable drug scene based on their own experiences.
But first, some context (I was that kid who actually liked history class, so bear with me, please): Believe it or not, the first movie ever to show drugs onscreen was produced by Thomas Edison, American hero and inventor of the lightbulb. It was called Chinese Opium Den and came out in 1894, setting the scene for what would become an iconic cinematic genre. (Interestingly, very little is known about the actual content of this movie, because only one 22-second snippet still survives to this day. But Edison was apparently a drug movie buff, because he made another film 10 years later called Rube In An Opium Joint.)
Surprisingly, early Hollywood movies were pretty drug-heavy. Films like For His Son (1912) and Mystery of The Leaping Fish (1916) used cocaine and opium addiction as central plot-points, and in some cases for humor — Mystery of The Leaping Fish features Douglas Fairbanks as a man whose name is Detective Coke Ennyday. (Say it out loud. Yes, really.)
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Eventually, the permissive attitudes towards drugs in the Silent Era soon gave way to strict regulations about the way drugs could be portrayed onscreen. 1937's Reefer Madness declared marijuana to be public enemy number one, and the cocaine glamorized by the Hollywood celebrities who discreetly indulged in the early days of cinema slowly faded from the screen. But by the late 1960s, America was high on hippies and counter-culture (I had to, I'm sorry), and drugs came back to movies in a big way. And there they stayed, giving us such cinematic masterpieces as The Panic In Needle Park, Drugstore Cowboy, Requiem for a Dream, and Pineapple Express (or any Seth Rogen/James Franco movie, really).
Now, on to the good stuff.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Cocaine

There's one major thing to remember when dealing with fake drugs: what they're made of often depends on whether we're just seeing them passed around, or if actors are actually ingesting them. "Any time you’re dealing with an actor you have to concerned with their dietary needs and allergies and anything like that," Jeff Butcher explained.

To fake cocaine, Butcher usually uses inositol, which is a vitamin found in plants and animals, and commonly used to cut real cocaine. "It'll give you a slight energy lift because it's a Vitamin B," he said. Fun! Except, when like Mickey Rourke on the set of The Wrestler, you don't realize that there are side effects, and demand to know if you've been given real drugs. Butcher recalls that Rourke asked: "Are you sure there’s nothing in this, I feel like I’m getting a lift?" He got over it, though — a Best Actor Oscar nomination will do that.

Jonah Hill had an even worse experience on the set of The Wolf of Wall Street, where he supposedly got really sick from snorting too much fake cocaine. He told The Guardian in 2014: “I snorted so much of that stuff that I got, like, bronchitis!… My lungs were filled with powder and I got really sick for a month and a half. But, I mean, I’d do it again in a second. The first time you snort fake cocaine in a Scorsese movie you feel like… I don’t know! I got embarrassed because I said that it’s every actor’s dream. I guess it’s not, but to me, it’s a pretty iconic thing to do.”

To avoid such incidents, prop master Eric Cheripka goes for a different approach. He tries to make the drug look as realistic as possible in appearance, without actors actually having to snort anything. To do that, he's been developing a straw that "would suck up the powder, which you could wrap around a dollar bill whatever, but it would get caught in the chamber so it wouldn’t go up the actor’s nose."
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
More Coke!

Sometimes, though, a chic Studio 54-like line won't cut it. You need bulk. Just think of the private plane deliveries in Blow!

There are a number of websites devoted to selling or renting out drug props which look real, but aren't meant for human consumption — cocaine bricks, heroin baggies, sacs of weed, you name it. Also available? Stacks of fake money to stuff into a payoff suitcase. Fake drugs won't buy themselves.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Weed

Pot-smoking is difficult to simulate, and the reason is that a lot of actors simply don't know how to smoke. "You know people who really smoke, really look like they smoke, and actors try to play them —  if they're smoking and if they don’t really smoke often they don’t know how to hold a cigarette and they don’t know how to hold a joint or whatever, the way someone who actually does it would," Butcher said. "I guess if we’re talking about weed, what I usually do, both for visually and if they’re smoking it, I get the stuff from a company called International Oddities. It’s some kind of herb that looks like weed but doesn’t get you high.”

Except if you're Drew Barrymore, apparently. Butcher said that on the set of Going The Distance, "There was a scene with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long where they smoke out of a bong, and it was kind of a mixed experience because I used that stuff from International Oddities... I spent like an hour smoking this bong to try and make it look like a bong that had been smoked in before, and then you know we did the scene and Drew thought that she was high and the directors thought that she was high. I really don’t know, I mean I smoked the stuff for an hour and it had no effect on me you know other than I guess I felt a little bit dizzy — smoking anything for an hour will make you feel a little bit dizzy." (We reached out to Barrymore's rep for comment and will update if and when we hear back.)
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Heroin

According to Cheripka, heroin is the hardest drug to fake onscreen, mostly because the devil is in the details. It's not just about getting the right shade of powder (although Butcher said he once bought real heroin for accuracy) — it's a ritual. "The main thing you need to do is have really good retractables," Cheripka explained. So, what does that mean? Basically, there are certain kinds of retractable needles that take water up in the middle of an inner tube, so that it looks like the substance is disappearing into someone's arm. But even then, to be truly accurate, Cheripka says there's another step to add: "A lot of times too when they shoot up, they would clean the hypodermic needle with their own blood, so they’d have a wash back of blood and then they shoot it back in. So, they pull up blood, they shoot the heroin, pull up blood and shoot it back in, so we had to do that."

Things get even more complicated in a period piece, because before the 1990s, needles were not readily available. "They used an eyedropper and they used a baby pacifier," Cheripka said. "If it’s 1960s and '70s, they would [also] use a rubber band and a dollar bill — they needed to make sure there was good suction when they were pulling up the drugs."

And then, there's the powder itself. On American Gangster, the 2007 Ridley Scott film starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, Cheripka chose mannitol, often used to cut actual heroin, as a substitute.

Finally, you have to perfect the kit that addicts carry around with them to shoot up. Usually, Chiripka says, that includes either matches or a candle, and something that can be used as a tourniquet to make your veins easier to access. (Elastic, bungee cords, belts are all good options — take this scene from Trainspotting as an example.) That's not all though. Another very important detail to note is the way heroin-users bend the spoons they cook in. "They would bend it so basically they can hold on to it with one finger, they can just put the finger out and it would wrap around the finger," Cheripka said.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Alcohol

It's not exactly a drug, sure, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have to faked. Butcher shared an anecdote about one of his early days as a prop assistant, when he was working on 1993's Arizona Dream, starring Johnny Depp, and Jerry Lewis. One scene apparently called for Depp to drink shots of Jack Daniels. Butcher served him iced tea in shot glasses, when he reportedly asked for "special tea" — in other words, actual Jack Daniels. 11 shots later, the actor had to be carried off set. (We reached out to Depp's rep for comment and will update if and when we hear back.)

"I think the boring truth is that most actors and even more directors know that actually using drugs in a drug scene is almost always a really bad idea," Butcher concluded.
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Illustrated by Abbie Winters.
Meth

Sometimes, you just can't get Walter White on the phone. According to Cheripka, fake meth is usually a resin — dyed aqua blue in the case of Breaking Bad. Once it hardens, it can be broken up into little pieces and bagged up. Voila! Instant Heisenberg special.
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