How to Spot Drug Paraphernalia

In the world of marketing or advertising, the word “paraphernalia” is often used to describe things like brochures, books or stickers that promote a specific brand or a particular type of product. While this sort of material is certainly in use in the world of drugs, the word “paraphernalia” has a completely different connotation in relation to drug use.

A Quick Definition of Drug Paraphernalia

Drug paraphernalia describes anything that has a direct impact on a person’s use of drugs. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) explains that paraphernalia can be equipment, products or material. These items may be meant to help with the following:

  • Manufacturing
  • Compounding
  • Converting
  • Concealing
  • Producing
  • Processing
  • Preparing
  • Injecting
  • Ingesting
  • Inhaling1

So, what do these items look like? And what do you do if you spot them?

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Finding Drug Paraphernalia

Some forms of paraphernalia are legal and available online or in “head shops.” Other forms aren’t legal. States have outlawed the possession of many types of drug paraphernalia. The reasoning behind these laws is that people wouldn’t have paraphernalia unless they were currently using or intending to use drugs.

Despite laws related to purchase and possession, paraphernalia can be found most places.
Some products are relatively inexpensive and easy to conceal. Others can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars and be used to manufacture drugs or simply display wealth or social standing. Some paraphernalia can be made at home by transforming common household products. Homemade products are often the least safe, but users hope to evade detection or possibly even arrest.

Marijuana Paraphernalia

Marijuana is often sold in a loose, herbal format that looks like oregano or thyme. Users must then take this substance and prepare it in some way before they can smoke it. Paraphernalia plays a key role here.

If people choose to smoke marijuana in cigarette form, they may have the following paraphernalia on hand:

  • Rolling papers
  • Small metal clips
  • Lighters and matches
  • Small baggies holding the drug

People who smoke marijuana might also invest in a bong, a water pipe that’s used to smoke marijuana. These pipes can be about the size of a soda can, or they can stretch to a few feet in height. Bongs are typically made of glass. They have a small receptacle for water, a small tube to hold the drug and a mouthpiece through which the user inhales smoke.

Glass pipes can also be used to smoke marijuana. These pipes may be hand-made or decorated with sayings or images that appeal to teenagers and young drug users. To people who don’t use drugs, these pipes might look like souvenirs or trinkets rather than drug equipment.

Injectable Drug Paraphernalia

Any needles or syringes found in the possession of someone who doesn’t take medication for a recognized medical illness should be considered drug paraphernalia. People who abuse heroin or other injectable drugs may also have medical or other tubing.

This tubing is tied around an arm or leg to make veins more prominent and easier to hit with a needle. Individuals may also have spoons, lighters or Bunsen burners that they use to prepare drugs for injecting.

Inhaled Drug Paraphernalia

Possible inhalants can be found in almost any home. Spray paint, gasoline, solvents and more can provide a quick high. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that inhalants are the easiest drugs for young people to obtain, and they are often the first drugs they try.2 While inhalants can be abused without paraphernalia, some common items related to use include the following:

  • Balloons
  • Nozzles
  • Bottles or cans containing inhalant residue
  • Rags dipped in chemicals

Other drugs can be turned into a breathable form. People who use cocaine or chop up prescription drugs in order to inhale them use a variety of paraphernalia. These tools may include the following:

  • Small mirrors (often containing a white powder residue)
  • Razor blades or pill cutters
  • Small spoons
  • Straws or rolled-up dollar bills used to snort the drugs

Some online stores sell ornate products meant to hold prepared doses for inhalation. These products can then be stashed in a user’s pocket or handbag. Such paraphernalia can be quite expensive and beautifully designed and may be disguised as jewelry or other everyday items.

Concealment Devices

Ways and tools for hiding drugs count as paraphernalia. As mentioned before, jewelry can hide powdered drugs or pills. Pipes can look like toys or souvenirs. Hats can be modified to include pockets for holding drugs. Some users stash their drugs in water bottles or bottles that once contained eye drops. Other users add hidden pockets to their pants, shoes or underwear so they can carry drugs with less risk of being caught in possession of drugs.3 People who stumble across concealment paraphernalia may also stumble across actual drugs.

What to Do When You Find Paraphernalia

A person who finds paraphernalia finds important evidence that drug abuse and addiction may be present. It’s tempting to respond by marching up to users and demanding explanations or immediate cessation of use. It’s equally tempting to deny the problem, ignore the paraphernalia and hope the issue solves itself. Neither of these is the right, proactive action.

Incorporating Paraphernalia Into Interventions

If you find paraphernalia, respond with compassion and kindness. Make a plan before you approach your child, parent, coworker or friend. Enlist the help of an interventionist to better understand the scope of the issue, what you can do and what the next best steps include. Paraphernalia can help during an intervention by acting as hard evidence of addiction. However, a person should never be accused or blamed.

Interventions should be supportive, constructive and loving.
Rather than attack a person addicted to drugs, friends and families can use positive statements. For example, families can say things like, “I found syringes in your room in your laundry basket. I don’t want anything to happen to you. What can I do to help you stop using?”

Interventionists can help families plan for these important discussions. They can help families learn how to make good use of the paraphernalia they have found. With planning that evidence might be the piece that pushes an individual struggling with addiction to accept needed, professional help. It’s harder to deny addiction when faced with paraphernalia, evidence and the concern and support of loved ones.

1 “Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act: Subchapter I — Control and Enforcement.” U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. 2016.
2 What Is the Scope of Inhalant Abuse?” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Jul. 2012.
3 Adams, Andrew. “Common Items Can Be Drug Paraphernalia in Hiding, Experts Say.” KSL News. 27 Jan. 2012.

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