Common Drugs: What to Look For and How to Identify Them

Learning how to identify drugs is a skill best used to help someone you care about stop using drugs. This is especially true considering that the very nature of addiction causes most drug-dependent people to hide their substance abuse. This article will help you understand how to identify the most commonly abused drugs.

However, it is important to understand that those using substances can become resourceful and find new methods and implements for drug use – as well as new drugs to consume. The best indicator of addiction is almost always behavioral signs, but knowing what drugs look like and the equipment associated with them can aid in identifying a problem and seeking the right kind of help.

Cocaine

General characteristicsCocaine is usually a white odorless powder that often comes in the corner of a tightly wound plastic baggie – especially sandwich baggies without a closure.

Methods of use: Cocaine is most often snorted, but it can also be smoked (sometimes with other drugs, most notably marijuana), eaten (users will often spread the powder on their teeth and gums using their finger in order to obtain a numbing effect in the mouth), and injected.

Associated equipment: corners of plastic baggies, credit cards, ID cards (or similar cards used for cutting and arranging lines of cocaine to be snorted), razors blades (used for same purpose as cards), needles and syringes, lengths of rubber tubes or belts used to secure and put pressure on a vein, short lengths of straws or rolled currency used for insufflation (snorting), mirrors for cutting lines and similar paraphernalia.

Signs of Cocaine Use in Your Loved One

Using an illicit stimulant substance like cocaine can cause your loved one to exhibit a number of troubling signs. Depending on the severity of their use, these signs can range from being mild to severe and their behaviors can change rapidly.1

Some of the most common signs of cocaine use include the following:1

  • Chaotic behavior
  • Aggression
  • Social isolation
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Headaches
  • Hallucinations

How to Recognize a Cocaine Overdose & What to Do

A cocaine overdose can be a scary and life-threatening event. In 2020 alone, approximately 19,447 Americans died of a cocaine overdose.It is important to not only be aware of what cocaine overdose looks like, but also what to do in the event that a loved one overdoses.

Someone who is experiencing a cocaine overdose can exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:3

  • Problems breathing
  • High blood pressure
  • High body temperature
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Hallucinations
  • Irregular heart rhythm
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Seizures

If you suspect that a loved one is experiencing a cocaine overdose, there are steps you should take immediately:4

  1. Evaluate them for signs of overdose, such as those listed above. Your loved one may also be experiencing other symptoms including unconsciousness and bluish tint around the mouth and fingertips.
  2. Call 911. Tell the dispatcher that your loved one is non-responsive and provide your location. If you are already aware of how to provide rescue breathing and chest compressions, do so after alerting 911. In some situations, the dispatcher may guide you through this step to ensure you are executing it properly.
  3. Continue providing rescue breathing until first responders arrive.

It is just as critical to understand what to do if a loved one is overdosing on cocaine as it is what not to do. If you believe your loved one is overdosing on cocaine, be sure that you do not:4

  • Place them in the bath or shower.
  • Leave them lying on their back.
  • Try to stimulate them by slapping or with any other form of physical force.
  • Make them vomit.

If you are unsure if your loved one is overdosing on cocaine and have access to Narcan (naloxone), administer it to them after calling 911. Naloxone will not cause any harm to them. This is a life-saving measure that can be provided, especially if later results show that they were also under the influence of opioids at the time of the overdose.5

Learn more about cocaine use.

Heroin

General characteristicsHeroin most often comes in a white, off-white, brown and in some cases black powder or tar-like substance, often sold in tightly wrapped plastic bags, clear or brown vials and in paper-wrapped bricks when in large quantity.

Methods of use: Heroin can come in many forms, but the most intense (and dangerous) effects are achieved when heroin is injected directly into the blood stream. Heroin can also be smoked or snorted.

Associated equipment: glass or plastic vials with residue inside, plastic baggies, scales, blackened or browned household spoons (for cooking the heroin to use with a syringe) tinfoil, needles and syringes, tourniquets and other implements used to create a pressure on a vein, lighters, straws and rolled bills for snorting, mirrors and similar items used to cut up and process heroin, various types of pipes including those made from household items including tinfoil, and/or makeup used to disguise the presence of needle marks and injuries.

Signs of Heroin Use in Your Loved One

If your loved one is using heroin, some of the immediate, short-term effects you may notice can include the following:6

  • Flushed, warm skin
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Clouded thinking
  • Nodding off
  • Itching

These signs fade when an individual is no longer under the influence of heroin. However, if your loved one is regularly using heroin, they can develop more serious, long-term symptoms, including:

  • Pulmonary complications
  • Liver and/or kidney disease
  • Infection in the heart
  • Constipation
  • Insomnia
  • Sexual dysfunction (men)
  • Irregular menstrual cycles (women)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

Heroin and Fentanyl: How the Drug is Causing Mass Overdoses

Heroin is a semi-synthetic opioid that is derived from opium poppy plant.7 This means that it possesses both natural and synthetic properties. Fentanyl, on the other hand, is a fully synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times more potent than morphine.While fentanyl is a substance that is often specifically sought out and used, many people who end up consuming fentanyl do so unwillingly. This is a result of a newer trend where individuals who deal heroin are “cutting” their stashes with fentanyl to increase the effects and expand the amount of drug they can sell. This is a dangerous and deadly trend that has resulted in countless overdose deaths.

Opioid Overdose Statistics

Opioid overdose deaths drastically increased from April 2020 to April 2021, with 75,673 people dying as a result of opioids like fentanyl. This is a significant increase in overdose deaths, as in the year prior, 56,064 people died from this specific type of overdose.9

Unfortunately, with the introduction of fentanyl, opioid overdose has become more common than ever before. If you suspect that your loved one is overdosing on opioids, you can help them by following these steps:10

  1. Call 911
  2. Administer naloxone if available
  3. Attempt to keep your loved one conscious and breathing
  4. Lay your loved one in the recovery position, which is on their side, to prevent choking
  5. Stay with your loved one until emergency services arrive

Learn more about heroin addiction.

Methamphetamine

General characteristicsMeth can take on a surprising variety of appearances. From a brown soft rock or powder substance to brown, clear, or white crystals, meth is not typically uniform because each manufacturer uses different methods, cutting agents, processing chemicals, and other important precursors.

Methods of use: Many individuals who use meth smoke the drug or directly inject it.

Associated equipment: tinfoil sheets and makeshift tinfoil pipes, “light bulb” pipes, short sections of straws (used both for snorting and for inhaling fumes from meth heated in a crease of tinfoil, in a light bulb, etc.), rolled bills, metal pipes, needles and syringes, belts, rubber hoses and other tourniquets, plastic baggies, scales, vials and/or other packaging.

Signs of Meth Use in Your Loved One

If a loved one is using meth, they can begin displaying signs and symptoms of that use, especially if their use is moderate to severe. Some signs of meth use in your loved one can include the following:11

  • Loss of appetite
  • Problems sleeping
  • Aggressive or violent behavior
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • High blood pressure
  • Dental problems
  • Hallucinations
  • Paranoia
  • Mood disturbances
  • Anxiety

Learn more about crystal meth addiction.

Ecstasy

General characteristicsEcstasy is usually a brightly colored pill, often with some type of proprietary markings, doodles, characters, etc.

Methods of use: Typically ingested in pill or capsule form, ecstasy can also be dissolved in water or other substances and consumed.

Associated equipment: pills, empty capsules, plastic baggies, Vicks Vapo Rub or similar products (popular at raves), pacifiers, (used to help prevent teeth grinding), items commonly associated with sex such as condoms, sex toys, etc, (many use ecstasy as a sex-enhancement drug).

Signs of Ecstasy Use in Your Loved One

Ecstasy is a stimulant substance, meaning that when it is used, it produces stimulant effects. If your loved one is using ecstasy, they may experience some of the following effects:12

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Lack of appetite

Your loved one may also develop other issues as a result of their ecstasy use, such as:12

  • Problems concentrating.
  • Heart disease.
  • Impaired memory and attention.
  • Decreased cognitive function.

Learn more about ecstasy.

Marijuana & Hash

General characteristics: This substance consists of the dried leaves and flowers of the marijuana plant. Plant materials are usually light to dark green, sometimes with significant portions of white, purple, red or orange and have a strong, distinctive smell similar to a potent sage or other herb.

Hashish is a drug made from collecting the resin glands on the outside of a marijuana flower. This results in brown or black masses of material that is highly resinous and often sticky. In large quantities this is formed into bricks, while individual portions come in small bits or chunks of the brick.

Methods of use: Marijuana and hash are usually smoked but can also be ingested or vaporized.

Associated equipment: Marijuana is smoked in a variety of ways that require a number of different types of equipment, such as water bongs, metal, wooden, clay or other pipes, makeshift pipes like aluminum soda cans, pipe fittings, etc., vaporizing equipment, rolling papers and rolling machines, grinders and more. Lighters, candles, “roach clips” (used to hold the small end of a burning joint), scales, baggies and trays to use for processing the drug and doling out individual portions and rolling joints, etc, are all common parts of a marijuana user’s paraphernalia.

Signs of Marijuana Use in Your Loved One

Marijuana is one of the most commonly used substances in the United States. Similar to alcohol, marijuana has become more widely accepted throughout the nation despite the many risks it carries. If you have a loved one who is using marijuana, you may be able to tell by identifying some or all of the following symptoms:13

  • Changes in mood
  • Problems thinking
  • Difficulty problem-solving
  • Impaired memory
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

Is Marijuana Addictive?

Using marijuana can cause marijuana use disorder, which is characterized by symptoms such as dependence and problems stopping use despite the consequences that result from it. Studies show that approximately 9% of people who use marijuana will develop an addiction to it. That number increases to 17% if marijuana use begins during one’s teenage years.14

Marijuana has been frequently referred to as a “gateway drug”, meaning that those who use it tend to go on to use other substances. While research is not fully clear on whether or not this is true15, there is some evidence that those who use marijuana may continue to experiment with other drugs. For example, a study that utilized data from the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders determined that those who used marijuana were more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than those who did not use marijuana at all.16

Learn more about marijuana use.

Crack

General characteristics: Crack usually comes in the form of small to medium sized “rocks,” although in most cases, the rocks are easily breakable. Crack rocks can be white, brown, or any variation of either, and in some cases may appear yellow.

Methods of use: While some users inject and even ingest crack directly, the preferred method for most users is smoking.

Associated equipment: Crack pipes – often made from glass but sometimes from other materials – are the most common type of paraphernalia associated with crack. However, because crack can be easily made from cocaine, other items associated with this drug include household spoons to cook the mixture down, lighters and tea candles, needles and syringes, sections of straws and rolled bills, tourniquets, etc.

LSD/Acid

General characteristics: LSD can be found in liquid form, on sheets of highly decorated paper, in sugar cubes, and gel tabs.

Methods of useLSD is almost always orally ingested; this is particularly true of paper LSD, which is dissolved on the tongue. However, some people have been known to let the substance absorb through their skin.

Associated equipment: Other than the acid itself, there is generally no equipment required in order to use this drug.

Learn more about hallucinogens.

Prescription Pills

General characteristics: Prescription pills come in far too many varieties for the purpose of this list, however the most common of these include Valium, Xanax, Oxycontin, Vicodin, Percocet, Ativan, Adderall, Ritalin, fentanyl, methadone and others.

Methods of use: While some users orally ingest pills, many prefer to crush and snort them when possible, although most modern pharmaceutical companies now produce specially-formulated medications that make this task difficult or even impossible.

Associated equipment: pill bottles, razor blades and credit cards to cut and set out lines, mirrors, short glasses of water to help aid in insufflation, straws and rolled up currency for snorting, etc.

Signs of Prescription Pill Use in Your Loved One

Approximately 16% of Americans ages 12 and older misuse prescription drugs, while 12% of them are addicted.17 If you suspect that your loved one is using prescription drugs, you may be able to recognize some signs of use, including the following:1

  • Experiencing strong cravings for prescription pills
  • Continually using prescription pills in situations where it is physically dangerous to do so
  • Making attempts at stopping prescription pill use but being unsuccessful
  • Developing tolerance
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when unable to use as much as normal or at all

How to Identify What Kind of Prescription Pill My Loved One is Using

There are countless prescription pills available, therefore attempting to determine which one your loved one is using can feel like an overwhelming, daunting task. However, when aware of the signs and symptoms associated with the types of prescription pills, you can get a better idea of what pill your loved one may be using.

Opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, produce depressant effects. If your loved one is using prescription opioids, they may exhibit symptoms including drowsiness, constipation, nausea, and slowed breathing.18

Stimulants, including amphetamines like Adderall and Ritalin, can create symptoms such as anxiety, jitteriness, headaches, weight loss, and palpitations.19

Benzodiazepines, or “benzos”, include prescription pills like Ativan, Xanax, and Klonopin. When misused, they can produce effects such as drowsiness, changes in mood, weakness, and confusion.

Bath Salts

General characteristicsBath salts do not conform to a set of standards other than the fact that they are powdery substances, most often white, brown or crystalline (although sometimes colored). Bath salts come in jars, canisters, and other packaging that can vary from generic to ornate and may feature warning labels such as “Not for human consumption.” This type of drug may also be sold as “plant food.”

Methods of use: Most users smoke or snort bath salts, while some
prefer to inject it.

Associated equipment: In addition to the special packaging bath salts come in, nearly all of the same implements, equipment and paraphernalia used for cocaine, heroin, crack and meth are also used for bath salts.

Peyote

General characteristics: Peyote is a small, low-lying cactus that looks like a type of gourd as it has no spines. It is typically green in color but can be a shade of brown after harvesting and drying. When processed for consumption, peyote is often cut into slices.

Methods of use: oral ingestion; either raw or in foods or beverages

Associated equipment: Peyote requires no equipment to process or use, but because many users also use marijuana simultaneously with peyote, weed-related paraphernalia may be present.

PCP/Phencyclidine

General characteristics: PCP is generally sold as a white, off-white or crystalline powder, but can also come in pill or capsule form.

Methods of use: PCP can be smoked, snorted, injected or ingested.

Associated equipment: razor blades, credit cards, smooth surfaces and other items to cut and distribute the powder or pills, spoons, lighters and tea-candles, needles, syringes, and items used as tourniquets.

Steroids

General characteristics: Since steroid manufacturers are constantly adapting their chemical formulations in order to avoid testing and detection, steroids can come in almost any form. From a little bit of powder in a plastic baggie to an injectible liquid to brightly colored pills, it can be difficult to distinguish steroids from other types of drugs.

Methods of use: Steroids are commonly injected, but can also be
mixed in food or beverages or consumed orally.

Associated equipment: all intravenous drug-use-associated equipment listed previously, vials, baggies, bottles and other packaging, measuring equipment, scales and other steroid-specific items

Signs of Steroid Use in Your Loved One

If your loved one is using steroids, they can begin exhibiting a number of physical and psychological symptoms, including:20

  • Paranoia.
  • Delusions.
  • Aggression.
  • Kidney/liver damage or failure.
  • Cardiac complications (i.e., enlarged heart, changes in blood cholesterol).
  • Increased risk for blood clots.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Stunted growth.

Additionally, men who use steroids can experience baldness and develop of breasts, while women can begin to grow facial hair and experience a cessation of their menstrual cycle.20

Are Steroids Really Dangerous?

Steroids can be addictive, but not in the same way that drugs and alcohol can be, as they do not produce the same mind-altering high. But, that does not mean that steroids aren’t dangerous. In fact, there are several dangers associated with steroid use, including increased risks for:20

  • Short-term and long-term health problems.
  • Contracting blood borne diseases like HIV or hepatitis (if injecting).
  • Developing an addiction.
  • Physical changes to the body and reproductive parts.

The misuse of steroids can be deadly, as continued health problems can create life-threatening situations.

Identifying Addiction

Now you know what some of the most common drugs look like and how they are consumed. Are you asking yourself if you or your loved one is suffering from addiction?

That is a very common question when someone is trying to identify a substance they’ve found. You can learn more about:

If you or your loved one is in need of help or has questions about what recovery from substance abuse may look like, give us a call anytime at . We are available 24/7 to help you. Recovery First, one of American Addiction Centers’ Florida drug rehab centers, is ready to help you overcome addiction and find long-term recovery. Call us today.

You aren't alone. You deserve to get help.
Recovery First is located in Hollywood, Florida, which is easily accessible from Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. Our small groups means you get more one-on-one support and make stronger connections with the community. Take the next step toward recovery: learn more about our addiction treatment programs near Florida's Atlantic coast or learn about how rehab is affordable for everyone.