How to Spot Drug Paraphernalia

Addictions often go hand in hand with denial. As an article about alcoholism in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry puts it, “Patients with alcohol dependence often underestimate the amount of alcohol they consume, the duration of their drinking problem, or the impact alcohol has had on their personal life or health. They are likely to overestimate their ability to control their drinking or to quit without assistance.” In other words, people with addictions often believe that they don’t truly have a substance abuse issue, and if they do accept that abuse is occurring, they may believe they can stop the abuse at any time they wish to do so. A successful intervention is designed to break through this denial, encouraging the addict to face the fact of the addiction and realize why help is so desperately needed. Drug paraphernalia can play a key role here. It is much more difficult for an addict to deny that any sort of drug abuse is taking place when that addict is forced to examine hard evidence of drug use.

A Quick Definition

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. According to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), drug paraphernalia is defined as any legitimate product or piece of equipment that has been modified in order to make, use or conceal illegal drugs. Under this definition, paraphernalia becomes a term that is used to describe something that has a direct impact on a person’s use of drugs. For this reason, many states have expressly outlawed the possession of drug paraphernalia. The thinking is that people wouldn’t have this type of product unless they were currently using, or they were intending to use, drugs.

Some types of paraphernalia are sold online or in so-called “head shops” that cater to people who use drugs. Some of these products are relatively inexpensive and easy to conceal, but many products can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, and they are meant to be displayed in order to demonstrate the user’s wealth and social standing. Other types of paraphernalia are made at home, by transforming common household products, and these types of paraphernalia are designed to help people evade detection, and possibly evade arrest.

Marijuana Paraphernalia

Marijuana is often sold in a loose, herbal format that looks quite a bit 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. Common paraphernalia used by people who smoke marijuana in cigarette form includes:

  • Rolling papers
  • Small metal clips
  • Lighters and matches
  • Small baggies holding the drug
People who smoke marijuana might also invest in a bong, or 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. Typically, the bong is made of glass and it contains a small receptacle for water, a small tube to hold the drug and a mouthpiece through which the user inhales smoke.

Tiny glass pipes can also be used to smoke marijuana, although these can be difficult for outsiders to spot, the DEA reports. Manufacturers often blow these pipes out of glass, and they decorate them with tiny sayings and colorful images that appeal to teenagers and young drug users. To people who don’t use drugs, these pipes might look like tiny souvenirs or trinkets, not drug equipment.

Injectable Drug Paraphernalia

In 1994, according to an article produced by the Society for Applied Anthropology, about 44 states had laws on the books that made the purchase of syringes for drug users difficult, if not impossible. As a result of laws like this, many people who abuse drugs hang onto their needles, and they use them over and over again each time they want to take drugs. 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 large amounts of medical tubing that they use to tie around their arms or legs in order to make their veins more prominent, and easier to hit with a needle. Injectable drug users might also have spoons, lighters or Bunsen burners that they use to heat up their drugs in order to prepare them for injecting.

Inhaled Drug Paraphernalia

People who abuse cocaine, or who chop up prescription drugs in order to inhale them, use a variety of tools in order to prepare their drugs for use. These tools include:

  • Small mirrors, often containing a white powder residue
  • Razor blades, used to chop up drugs
  • Small spoons, to lift the drugs up to their noses
  • Straws or rolled-up dollar bills used to snort the drugs
Some online stores sell ornate products that hold several doses of prepared drugs. These products can then be stashed in a user’s pocket or handbag, allowing the person to take drugs on the go without stopping to prepare another dose. These products can be quite expensive and beautifully designed.

Inhalant Paraphernalia

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, inhalants are the easiest drugs for young people to obtain, and they are often quite popular among young people, as they tend to pack a powerful punch. Any person who has common inhalants, including spray paint, gasoline or solvents, at hand at all times should be suspected of inhalant abuse. Examples of inhalant paraphernalia include:

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

Concealment Devices

Some forms of drug paraphernalia are found in common pieces of clothing. For example, an article produced by KSL in Utah suggests that some drug users modify their hats, adding small pockets at the brim that could hold a stash of drugs.

Other users add pockets to their pants, shoes or underwear, so they can carry drugs from place to place while feeling more confident that they will not be caught in possession of drugs. Some users stash their drugs in bottles that once contained eye drops, or they place drugs in small water bottles and drink from them at will.
These might be hard for outsiders to detect without performing a close inspection. However, if users feel confident that their drugs are well concealed in these devices, they may not remove their drugs. For this reason, people who stumble across the concealment paraphernalia may also stumble across actual drugs.

What to Do

It can be tempting for people who find paraphernalia to march right up to the user and demand that he or she stop using right now. Some people might even be tempted to wave the paraphernalia about during this discussion, making it difficult for the addict to overlook the evidence and deny the problem. While this response might be understandable, it also might not be helpful. A person who finds paraphernalia has found important evidence that an addiction is taking place, but the addict might feel attacked if that paraphernalia is abruptly taken and used as a weapon in this way.

Instead, an intervention can make good use of the paraphernalia. Here, the family can reference the items as hard evidence that the drug use is taking place, but they can do so in a way that is supportive and constructive. Families can use statements such as, “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 important discussions like this, and 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 the addict to accept needed addiction help.

If you’d like to confront your loved one about their drug use but aren’t sure how to do so, give us a call. We can connect you with an interventionist in your area who can help.