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Drugs, Camera, Action! The Art of Making Drugs Look Real on TV

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Scenes of drug taking and characters high on drugs are increasingly common in TV shows, movies, and computer games. This reflects the rising levels of illicit drug use in the real world, as well as the cultural dissolution of taboos about revealing the explicit details of activities like illicit drug use in dramatic entertainment formats.


“Take it from the top”: the back story

3D Research has provided specialist research and consultancy on psychoactive drug use since the 1990s. The expertise of its two researchers – myself and Cheryl White – comes from both professional and personal experience. Though research and drugs work have taught us much, our direct experience of using drugs was also invaluable in providing an inside view of drug use when advising TV shows – including the fine details of what illicit drugs look like and how they’re consumed, but especially how their effects are experienced and exhibited.

Our regular consultancy work for TV shows began in 2017, when we were hired to advise on the Patrick Melrose production (2018). Since then we have advised on several shows, notably Giri/Haji (2019), Sex Education (2020), Beecham House (2020), Unforgotten (2023) and Eric (2023). The drugs we have advised on across these shows include cannabis, heroin, opium, cocaine, crack, amphetamine, ecstasy, sedatives, and alcohol.

We typically start by giving advice and information on scenes of drug use via the telephone, email, and video calls. We then usually go on to spend several days advising actors and other crew members on set, in TV studios or on location as needed. Like everyone involved, we have to familiarise ourselves with daily call sheets, which provide details of each scene and the main actors’ schedules, signing non-disclosure agreements to ensure we don’t leak any details of the production before their release. Our primary aim is, when making drugs look real, to ensure that shows avoid the typical mistakes and exaggerations made by previous productions when depicting drug use and their effects. We also want to build in subtle harm reduction messages whenever possible.


“Rolling”: advising TV shows on drug use and effects

Our main work is advising directors and actors as scenes are filmed, as well as working with writers, make-up, props, CGI and other specialist teams. The show we’ve given the most input on was Patrick Melrose, mainly because Benedict Cumberbatch was particularly keen to provide an authentic portrayal of his character’s drug use, insisting we were present for all relevant scenes. So we will use this show as a key source for illustrating our points below. The advice and information we provide covers three broad areas: the drugs, their consumption, and their effects.


“That’s a wrap”: making drugs

As well as the drugs themselves, drug products covers packaging and paraphernalia (materials used to prepare and administer drugs). TV shows use harmless herbal mixtures to make mock cigarettes and cannabis spliffs, which, like fake tablets and capsules, are fairly easy to reproduce and simulate. However, producing plausible copies of drug powders like cocaine or heroin is trickier for several reasons. As well as making products which are safe to snort or inhale, two aspects of drug powders need to be accurately represented: their appearance, and how they react when being prepared for use (e.g., ‘cooked up’ or chopped lines).

We initially approached the task by conducting several ‘kitchen chemistry’ experiments. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we used what many dealers currently use ‘cut’ drugs – such as sugars, sodium bicarbonate and caffeine. White powders like cocaine and amphetamine are fairly easy to copy; simulating heroin freebase (brown) is trickier. One of the best recipes involves the same method dealers use to produce ‘bash’ for diluting import-strength heroin – mixing crushed paracetamol tablets with caffeine powder and baking it.

Another drug which can be difficult to simulate is crack-cocaine. As seasoned dealers know, even when using the usual ingredients and procedure, real or fake crack can be challenging to consistently reproduce. It may unexpectedly crumble when touched or explode when heated. As with fake heroin, we found a caffeine and crushed tablet mix worked best.

Another challenge was producing brown powders which reliably perform like heroin does when it’s chased on a square of aluminium foil. First, when the powder is heated on a foil, it should rapidly change into a beetle (a black, gooey blob which runs like a liquid and gives off white vapour), but also turn back to a solid lump when it cools. If the beetle refuses to run or ignites when heated, it’s back to the drawing board (or oven). Second, as well as safe, the powder should be easy and pleasant to inhale – and not cause the actor to cough or retch.

We have now perfected several ‘secret’ recipes for producing credible, usable mock drugs. If this TV work ever dries up, we may consider alternative sources of income.

TV production companies are typically ahead of the game with hypodermic syringes. Rather than allow real syringes on set, they use prop syringes with plastic needles which retract into the barrel when pressed against flesh – along with prosthetic flesh for vein penetration shots, stunt doubles, and special effects. However, expert advice is still needed. For instance, in Edward St Aubyn’s books, on which the Patrick Melrose show was based, Melrose is described as trying to inject with a syringe the size of “a bicycle pump.” Since some producers were unsure if this was literal, we advised that the “bike pump” was likely to be a comedic reference, because rarely are syringe barrels larger than 5 ml used by injecting drug users. This is because doses of most drugs can be administered in syringes of up to 2 ml size, and a barrel larger than 5 ml is very difficult to inject with and typically used only by those who inject crushed tablets.


“Taking the shot”: drug use

On most jobs we had pre-production meetings where we described drug consumption in more depth, including its seven main aspects which I’ve developed: accessing drugs, setting of use, dose taken, methods of use, frequency of use, poly-drug use, and drug products. For instance, on Patrick Melrose, we spent a great deal of time covering how speedballs are prepared and injected. Benedict Cumberbatch was especially keen to achieve a high-quality portrayal of his character’s drug use, leading to many retakes of these scenes – much to the producer’s consternation, who were juggling this goal with other scheduling priorities.


Cumberbatch demanded that the on-set drug experts take a scalpel to his performance to make sure he got everything right. “You try to push it too much, or too little,” Cumberbatch said. “I kept going back and asking for feedback and honesty.”

IndieWire, 13 August 2018.


Unless a particular scene was intended to depict harmful use, producers usually agreed that actors should try to show all aspects of safer drug use – including swabbing injection sites, flushing and using tourniquets in injecting scenes. We also trained many actors in the fine details of how to snort drug powders like cocaine. We always advised that actors should try to genuinely snort the fake drug powders (typically sugars), otherwise creating a convincing illusion of snorting would require additional editing or even CGI.

The rest of the story is continued in part 2.

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