What Drug Paraphernalia May Look Like

What Is Drug Paraphernalia?

Drug paraphernalia refers to any material, equipment, or product that is used to manufacture, compound, conceal, produce, process, prepare, or administer a controlled substance. People who use drugs or unsafe substances may use or adapt everyday household items for these purposes.

Finding these items in a loved one’s bedroom, bag, or car may be a red flag. If you suspect someone you love is taking drugs, finding any of these common and often overlooked items should serve as a warning sign to take action.

Burnt Spoons or Bottle Caps

Addict preparing drugs
ermingut / Getty Images

One of the first signs of a drug problem is usually not a syringe or needle but missing spoons. It's not unusual to hear roommates or family members wondering why a cutlery service for 12 is suddenly down to only nine spoons.

Spoons are used for "cooking" certain drugs, meaning that the powdered drug is placed in the bowl of a spoon with a little water and heated over a flame until it turns to liquid. Because the flame can irreparably stain the spoon, it can't be returned and the person is likely to instead hide it away for future use.

An alternative is bottle caps, which are less conspicuous and are usually held over a flame with a pair of pliers. Having either or both of these items stashed can be a sign of possible drug use.

Loose Razor Blades

In order to prepare cocaine or methamphetamine ("meth") to be snorted, single- or double-edged razor blades are commonly used to cut the substances into lines. A mirror is frequently used as the chopping board because:

  • Some people seem to get a thrill from seeing themselves snort drugs.
  • The powdered drug won't stick to the glass.
  • It improves visibility and reduces waste.

A mirror that has visible, straight scratch marks can be another warning sign of drug use.

Used, Dried-Up Cotton Balls

A cotton ball can be used as a filter after a drug has been cooked in a spoon or bottle cap. The cotton ball is dropped into the bowl of the spoon to strain the liquid and weed out any impurities that have not melted. The needle and syringe then extract the liquid through the cotton filter to inject.

You can use a drug residue test kit (like the Surface Drug D4D Test) readily available online or at many major drug stores to test for drug residue.

Cut-Up Straws or Hollowed Pens

Straws are commonly used to snort cocaine or meth. They are usually cut into 3-inch to 5-inch lengths. Another method is to extract the inside of a ballpoint pen and snort the drug through the hollowed tube.

Rolled-up dollar bills can also be used to snort drugs. The bills are simply curled into a tube and then flattened out afterward to conceal the evidence. People who use bills for snorting tend to prefer crisp bills because they believe less powder will get stuck to the fibers compared to old, frayed ones.

Burnt Foil Squares

While rolling papers or glass or metal pipes often indicate that someone is smoking drugs, aluminum foil can also be evidence of drug use.

People who smoke crack will often place the chopped-up crystals onto a piece of foil and hold it over a candle or lighter until it smokes. They will then inhale the smoke through a rolled-up foil straw, dollar bill, or glass or metal straw. If you find wadded-up pieces of crack foil in the waste bin, it will usually have a burnt, resiny scent that's hard to miss.

Lighters or Used Matches

Lighters, used matches, and bunsen burners may also be a source of concern if a person is not known to smoke cigarettes, light candles, or burn incense. 

Rubber Tubing or Lacing

There are many things a person can use to tie off an arm so that a vein plumps up before injecting a drug such as heroin.

A person might use extra-long shoelaces, a belt, a hairband, an elastic lanyard, or even a length of twine. All of these things can be obvious signs of drug use.

One item that should raise a red flag is a precut length of rubber tubing or lacing, which may be preferred because they provide extra tension that other items can't.

Signs of Illegal Drug Use or Interest

There are many potential signs of illegal drug use including:

  • Apathy and a lack of motivation
  • Becoming angry over "trivial" things
  • Bloodshot eyes (linked with marijuana use)
  • Change in appearance (wearing dirty or wrinkled clothes)
  • Change of friends (usually, friends that are also doing drugs)
  • Constant fatigue
  • Constant scratching of skin (linked with opiate use)
  • Depression
  • Dripping nostrils (linked with cocaine use)
  • Lying frequently
  • Making threats
  • Missing curfew (for kids and teens)
  • Mood swings
  • Needle tracks on the inside of their arm (linked with heroin use)
  • Neglect of personal hygiene
  • Pinpoint pupils (linked with barbiturate or heroin use)
  • Receiving poor grades and/or skipping school (for kids and teens)
  • Secretive behavior and a lack of communication
  • Slurring speech
  • Stealing things (potentially to sell for drug money)
  • Suicidal thoughts, words, and/or actions
  • Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
  • Verbal abuse
  • Violent behavior (often linked with psychotropic drugs)
  • Widely dilated pupils (linked with cocaine, amphetamine, or hallucinogen use)
  • Withdrawing from usual activities

Of course, some symptoms may be the result of an underlying medical condition or the side effects of a prescribed drug. If you suspect your teen is taking illicit drugs, be sure to do some research to find out if there is another explanation. You might even speak to their doctor to be sure.

However, if someone is displaying common signs of illegal drug use and they possess certain drug paraphernalia, it is likely they are using drugs. Paraphernalia includes weight scales, a butane torch, a bong, a ziplock bag, square folded paper envelopes, lighters, small porcelain bowls, needles, balloons, aluminum foil wrappers, mirrors or flat metal, cut straws, pipes, capsules, and/or vials.

If someone is consistently using products like sunglasses, eye drops, perfume, and/or mouthwash, it's possible they are trying to cover up drug use. However, these are also everyday items that have benign uses. If you notice someone using "cover-up" products frequently, along with displaying other behavioral signs, it may be more likely that they are engaging in drug use.

If You Suspect Drug Use

If parents or caregivers suspect that a teen might be using drugs, it is important to have a conversation with the child and to seek help from a doctor.

The Partnership to End Addiction suggests that parents should:

  • Approach the conversation from a place of love
  • Gather evidence of drug use
  • Prepare for anger and denial
  • Remain calm
  • Establish rules and consequences

"I don't know" or "I found it" should never be considered an adequate reply from your teen when you inquire about questionable items—be it a lighter or some other type of potential drug paraphernalia—in their room.

Recognizing the signs of drug use and taking action is essential for getting your loved one the help and treatment that they need. Talk to a health professional or call an information helpline for more tips on how to help a loved one who might have a substance use problem.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

It can feel terrifying when you suspect that someone you love is using harmful drugs. The best place to start is by communicating with them and letting them know that you care about them and want the best for them.

You can help point them in the right direction by discussing their options, such as attending therapy or a support group for people with substance use disorder if their use is compulsive. Remember, they are ultimately responsible for their sobriety, so taking care of their mental health is paramount to putting them on track for a drug-free lifestyle.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does it mean to possess drug paraphernalia?

    Possession of drug paraphernalia refers to having equipment that is used to produce, conceal, or administer illicit drugs. Many states have laws that specify the equipment that qualifies as paraphernalia, but it may include items such as bongs, glass pipes, syringes, and miniature spoons.

  • What is a drug paraphernalia charge?

    Being charged with possession means that an individual has been accused of having equipment or material used to produce, process, prepare, or use an illicit substance. State laws vary, but the conviction of possession of paraphernalia can potentially lead to prison time, fines, and community service.

  • What should I do if I find drug paraphernalia?

    If a loved one has drug paraphernalia in their possession, talk to them about getting treatment and ask a doctor or mental health professional for further advice.

  • Where do kids buy paraphernalia?

    Kids can buy paraphernalia from a variety of places, including novelty shops, gas stations, convenience stores. They may also order drug paraphernalia online.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. 21 U.S. Code § 863 - drug paraphernalia. LII / Legal Information Institute.

  2. Get Smart About Drugs, A Resource for Parents. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). How to identify drug paraphernalia.

  3. Ali S, Mouton CP, Jabeen S, et al. Early detection of illicit drug use in teenagersInnov Clin Neurosci. 2011;8(12):24-28.

  4. Drug Enforcement Administration. How to identify drug paraphernalia.

  5. Partnership to End Addiction. Prepare to take action if you suspect teen or young adult drug use.