What Drug Paraphernalia May Look Like

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 some 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
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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 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, the individual can't return it and will instead hide it away somewhere 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 trouble.

Loose Razor Blades

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

  • 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 a drug problem.

Used, Dried-Up Cotton Balls

A cotton ball is used as a filter after a drug has been cooked in a spoon. It 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. Users 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 in advance of injection. They may include everyday items such as extra-long shoelaces, a belt, a hairband, an elastic lanyard, or even a length of twine. All of these things are less-than-obvious signs of drug use.

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

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 should you inquire about questionable items—be it a lighter or some other type of potential drug paraphernalia—in a loved one's 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.

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.

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  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. Updated July 1, 2021.

  3. Partnership to End Addiction. Prepare to take action if you suspect teen or young adult drug use. Published February 2017.