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A Parent Guide to Drug Paraphernalia & Physical Evidence of Teen Drug Use
Whether your teen is an all-around upstanding citizen or known to get into trouble here and there, peer pressure and the inclination of teenagers toward risky behavior always make drug use a possible avenue in your child’s growing up. As a parent, it is vital to keep a vigilant watch for signs of substance abuse, which can be difficult to spot if you don’t know what to look for.
Changes in personality and attitude, behavior, and friends can all be indicators of possible drug use, but here we are going to focus on perhaps the most tangible sign: drug paraphernalia and other physical evidence. Of course, finding actual drugs is a surefire sign of substance abuse, but there are additional objects and materials that might indicate your teen is doing drugs.
Drug paraphernalia refers to a wide assortment of devices used to store, transport, make, prepare, do, or consume drugs. In this article, we’ll help you recognize some of these items and the drug(s) with which they are most associated.
Now you might be thinking that this is all pretty self-explanatory. Obviously discovering a bong tucked under your teen’s bed is going to raise a few red flags that he’s smoking the wacky tobacky.
However, the tricky part is that although the paraphernalia connected to certain substances, such as marijuana, may be more familiar to non-users, ecstasy or LSD paraphernalia (for example) might not be. Even trickier is the fact that while some items are made exclusively for drug use or are instantly connoted with certain substances—rolling papers, syringes, etc.—many are normal, everyday objects. You yourself may have purchased them for their intended purpose, unaware of how your teen is actually using them.
Take straws for instance.
Everybody loves a good straw. Especially if it’s of the bendable or silly variety. Why crane your neck to take a drink when you can use this nifty little device to miraculously transport liquid straight from your cup to your mouth?
But did you know straws, particularly if they have been cut into smaller pieces, are also commonly used to snort heroin, meth, and cocaine?
So let’s say you buy a box of plastic straws for normal drinking use. What might indicate that your teen uses them instead for nefarious purposes? For straws and any other common object that can be involved in substance use, pay attention to these factors:
Do you ever actually see your teen use them for their intended purpose?
Where did you find the item(s)? Somewhere unusual? In a hidden or secret spot?
Does your teen have a lot more of the item than would be typical?
In instances where the items are used communally by the household, do they run out much faster than expected? Are they gradually disappearing (in accordance with typical usage) or do many go missing at a time?
So without further ado, what are some of these paraphernalia—mundane or otherwise—often involved in drug use?
Also known as cannabis, weed, pot, Mary Jane, reefer, and dozens of other names, marijuana is the most used drug by teens (and adults) after alcohol and tobacco. Roughly 20% of high school seniors have used marijuana in the past month. Despite its legality in a handful of states, weed is still illegal under federal law and has been shown to cause detrimental effects on the still-developing brain of adolescents and young adults.
Grinders: Used to shred up marijuana buds into smaller bits in preparation for smoking. They are small cylindrical objects comprised of two halves with grinding teeth and a tiny magnet in the middle.
Rolling Papers: Small sheets of (usually white or translucent) paper or plant material used to make marijuana cigarettes called joints. Pot smokers will also use cigar wrappings to roll weed, which is known as a blunt.
Roach Clips: Any sort of clamp or holder, typically made of metal, which a smoker uses to grasp a marijuana cigarette as it burns smaller and smaller, primarily to smoke as much from the joint as possible and avoid burning fingers. Common examples of roach clips include forceps and alligator clips.
Bongs: Vertical water pipes that vaporize the smoke of the drug for inhalation. They are most often made of glass or plastic and range in size from eight to fourteen inches, though they can be much bigger.
Heroin, Cocaine, and Meth
Though derived from very different materials, heroin, cocaine, and meth are all highly addictive and dangerous substances. All three are commonly found in powdered form, though cocaine and meth also frequently come in crystal form (aka crack cocaine and crystal meth).
Since heroin, cocaine, and meth can all be snorted, smoked, sniffed, and injected, they share much of the same preparation and consumption paraphernalia.
Razor Blades and Cards: Powdered drugs are prepared for snorting typically by being separated, or cut, into thin rows called lines. Razor blades and any type of card (credit card, playing card, gift card, etc.) are the most regularly used, though any other firm straight-edged item will work.
Mirrors: Cutting drugs into lines requires a hard surface. Most often a reflective surface is preferred as well. Therefore, users will often carry small portable mirrors.
Pen Tubes, Straws, and Tightly Wrapped Dollar Bills: Numerous objects can be utilized to snort drug lines—empty pen tubes, (cut up) straws, and rolled up dollar bills among the most regular—but any hollow cylindrical device could be used.
Tin or Aluminum Foil: The drugs may be placed on napkin-sized sheets of foil which are then heated over a flame or other source of heat. As the drug smokes and evaporates, users inhale the fumes. Afterward the foil will usually be charred on the bottom.
Spoons: Frequently found with burn marks, spoons are used to hold the drug while the user places a lighter underneath. The dissolved or melted form of the drug is then sniffed or injected.
Glass Tubes: In addition to their potential use as snorting paraphernalia, glass tubes—such as those often sold with fake miniature roses—are also employed in inhaling the rising fumes of a heated drug (such as from foil or a spoon). They may be chipped, melted, or charred on one end with a white residue in the middle. Additionally, they are sometimes accompanied by bits of steel wool or cotton, which are placed on the inside of the tube.
Syringes: Used to directly inject the drug into the bloodstream, syringes pose an added danger via potential infections and transmission of bloodborne pathogens from dirty needles and needles shared between multiple people. Users may keep around disinfectant supplies like rubbing alcohol in their efforts to sterilize needles.
Belts, Bungee Cords, Strips of Cloth and Shoelaces: Drug users create makeshift tourniquets out of these and other rope-like objects and tie them around the site of the injection, typically the arm, in order to enlarge veins.
Inhalants refer to aerosols, solvents, gases, and nitrites that are breathed through the mouth or nose to produce a high. They are the most commonly abused drug by 12 and 13 year-olds.
Commercial Products: One of the reasons inhalant use is so prevalent among younger teens is that many of these high-inducing substances are already in the house. Always be aware of chemical products in your home, keeping tabs on how much you should have versus if any is missing. In addition, finding an inhalant substance in some place other than where you keep them—in your teen’s closet, perhaps—is a strong sign of possible abuse. Among the products to monitor are:
-Gasoline and lighter fluid
-Paint, spray paint, paint thinners, and paint remover
-Detergent, bleach, and other laundry or dry cleaning products
-Any product in an aerosol can including whipped cream, hair spray, deodorant, and cooking oil
Brown Paper Bags: Users will also inhale substances from inside a bag, a method known as bagging.
Rags: Huffing is a method of inhalant use in which a person soaks a rag in a chemical and then breathes in the fumes from it.
Ecstasy most commonly comes in pill form and is frequently associated with dance parties, music festivals, and raves. Other common names for ecstasy are Molly and E.
Bags of Candy: Users will often hide ecstasy pills among similarly colorful candy.
Pacifiers, Lollipops, and Jawbreakers: When on the drug, users tend to tightly clench their jaw. These items help make them more comfortable.
Vapor or Mentholated Rubs: Allow users to breathe easier and enhance the drug’s sensations.
Surgical or Painter’s Masks: Abusers will often use vapor rubs by applying them to these or similar masks.
Glow Sticks: These and other colorful, neon items are often collected by users to enhance their sensations while high.
LSD, or acid, is a powerful hallucinogenic drug, and an LSD high, known as a trip, can last as long as twelve hours per hit. LSD is typically synthesized into a liquid but may also be found in pill or capsule form.
Blotter paper: Small sheets of absorbent paper composed of smaller perforated sections which are soaked in LSD and ingested. They are frequently decorated with colorful patterns or illustrations.
Sugar Cubes: The original delivery system when LSD first became popular, sugar cubes are likewise coated or filled with LSD then sucked on or ingested.
Eyedroppers: Used to take LSD directly via placing drops on the tongue.
Some objects are utilized across a wide variety of drugs, thus finding such an item can make it difficult to ascertain what the exact substance your teen might be abusing. Nevertheless, discovering any of these objects (or when paired with shady circumstances in regard to the more mundane items) should raise some red flags.
Scales: A teen may possess a small portable scale, roughly the size of a smart phone, for the purpose of buying or selling drugs to ensure the amount of the drug agreed upon in the transaction is accurate.
Baggies: Re-sealable, sandwich-sized plastic bags are a typical method of storing a drug stash. Though a common item in transporting food, teens using drugs can be found with an unusually high number of empty baggies in their pockets, rooms, backpacks, etc. Users also commonly shift the drug to a corner of the bag, use a twist tie or other knot to secure it, and then cut off the remainder of the bag. Also be on the lookout for tinier baggies, containing a single dose or hit of a substance.
Glass Vials, Boxes, and Other Small Containers: In addition to baggies, teens will use any type of vial, box, or container to store their drugs. Drug users may even buy storage paraphernalia that look like normal items or alter such objects themselves to house a secret holding compartment. Examples of items used to store drugs include:
-Mint or candy boxes
-Stuffed animals or other toys
-Books with the middles of pages cut out
-Makeup containers and lipstick tubes
-Soda, snack, cleaning supply, shaving cream or any other type of cans
-Bottles and thermoses
Since such paraphernalia are designed to evade suspicion, you may not realize an object is storing drugs, even upon thorough inspection. Therefore, take note of certain behaviors that seem odd given the item.
In the case of a stuffed animal example, for instance, let’s say your teen says she keeps it for sentimental reasons. Why then does she bring it to school and parties? Or in another example, your teen finished all of the chips in that can of Pringles weeks ago. Why does she still have the can in her room? And how come she absolutely refuses to share a mint even though you see her carrying around that metal Altoid box all the time?
Lighters: Numerous drugs, in one form or another, can be smoked including weed, crack cocaine, salvia, PCP, meth, opium, and heroin, as well as tobacco.
Pipes: As with lighters, pipes can indicate any number of drugs that are smoked. Pipes are commonly made of anything from wood to porcelain to glass to clay.
Drug users can be clever and persistent in their smoking and have been known to craft their own pipes. While perhaps some people have the whittling skills to carve a pipe out of a wooden block, smokers frequently devise makeshift pipes out of apples, pens, plastic bottles, paper towel tubes, and other household items.
Furthermore, head shops and paraphernalia producers continually develop new pipes concealed within or designed to look like everyday objects. Some might even function as the item normally should. More common examples include pipes disguised as belt buckles, markers/highlighters, lipstick, and video game controllers.
Other Physical Evidence
Beyond paraphernalia, there are other physical signs and tangible objects that indicate your kid might be using drugs. Repeatedly finding unexplained stains, paint, or powders on your teen’s body or clothing—even if you can’t explicitly identify them as an illicit substance—is one such example. Many others are methods your teen may employ to hide his abuse.
Case in point, unless you are Corey Hart, there’s no reason to wear your sunglasses at night. Teens who constantly keep their shades on after dark or indoors might be concealing bloodshot eyes or dilated or constricted pupils, a common effect of substance abuse. Eye drops also indicate this behavior.
Similarly, have you noticed your teen always wearing arm bands or long sleeves even during really warm weather? He might be covering needle marks or scabs.
Next, drug use is a smelly business. Whether from the substances themselves, the process of preparation or consumption, or the effect they have on a person’s body, drugs often come with a strange assortment of odors, aromas, and stenches, smells teens will want to hide.
They might burn incense while they smoke to mask the drug’s burning scent or frequently spray air fresheners. A sudden or heavy use of breath mints, mouthwash, perfume or cologne might also suggest your teen is covering the smell of drugs on his clothes or body.
Finally, monitor your child’s interest in drug culture. Does he frequently visit websites, listen to music, watch movies, or read magazines the regularly glamorize substance use? Of course, simply liking a song now and again that references drugs doesn’t mean your kid is an addict; however, increasingly delving into a culture that celebrates abuse can quickly lead to him joining that lifestyle.
And how about his clothes and other possessions? It’s not difficult to find t-shirts, posters, jewelry, mugs, and countless knickknacks plastered with images of drugs or drug use, marijuana in particular, at a flea market or novelty store at the local mall. While not every belt buckle shaped like a pot leaf secretly hides a pipe or weed stash, your teen’s possession of one is troubling all the same.
Drug use can be difficult to spot, but with this guide you will recognize some of the most common objects connected with substance abuse.
Furthermore, although drug culture will evolve and develop new paraphernalia and consumption methods, asking the same questions—why is my teen so protective of his ______ (fill in the blank with any item), how come he has so many ______, but I never see him use them?, etc.—can help you identify other objects not popularly used or invented yet.
But finding drug paraphernalia is just the first step. Next, with physical evidence in hand, you need to confront your teen.
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By Tyler Wroblewski
Click here for tips and strategies on how to intervene when your teen is using drugs or alcohol.
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Table of Paraphernalia: From Frank Boston at www.flickr.com/photos/fixersphotos
Paraphernalia: From Espiritusanctus (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Straws: Original image from Horia Varlan from Bucharest, Romania (Eight drinking straws in rainbow colors) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Words added by author.
Do Not Enter: From Emma Craig at https://www.flickr.com/photos/98925031@N08/9571827657
Grinders: From Liquid Splitter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rolling Papers: From Erik Fenderson [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Roach Clips: From Spydercanopus at English Wikipedia, edited by Craig Pemberton at English Wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bongs: From IN HL at www.flickr.com/photos/100443193@N08
Heroin: From United States Drug Enforcement Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cocaine: From Zxc (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Snorting: From https://pixabay.com/en/cocaine-drugs-death-396752/
Meth on Tin Foil: From United States Drug Enforcement Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Burnt Spoon: From Psychonaught (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Injection: From https://pixabay.com/en/injecting-medical-shot-veins-519389/
Spray Paint: From Kufi Smacker at www.flickr.com/photos/kufismackerpck
Krazy Glue: From Mike Mozart at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeepersmedia/15014590012
Inhaling Aerosol Cans: From Evil Erin at https://www.flickr.com/photos/evilerin/3424970624