Spotting Drugs & Paraphernalia

Identifying a family member who is using drugs is an important step toward early intervention and treatment. Providing support for children, teenagers, young adults, or other family members who have a substance use disorder can make a big difference in their recovery.


Heroin can take on many different looks, textures, and purity levels. In the Midwest, heroin is typically found in powder form, while it is a black tar like substance on the west coast. In a powder, heroin can come in different shades of white and brown.

Purity Levels

Heroin is not sold at 100% purity. Different regions and dealers throughout the United States use different levels of purity. When someone buys heroin, they do not know the purity level of the heroin they are purchasing. The risk of overdose increases when someone uses a more pure form of heroin suddenly.

Brown heroin in bags
Heroin folded up in aluminum foil
Heroin in bags

Different Ways Heroin is Packaged and Sold

  • Balloons - dealers place heroin (usually black tar) in a balloon and tie the top.
  • Folded up aluminum squares - used to package white powder.
  • Gelatin capsules - capsules are emptied and refilled with powdered heroin.
  • Small parts of plastic bags, small Ziploc®-type bags

Common Heroin Paraphernalia

  • Bottle tops
  • Bowls and pipes
  • Burned and missing silver spoons. The spoons are used to cook the heroin over a flame. The flame causes the bottom of the spoon to burn and turn black.
  • Cigarette pieces about 2/8ths of an inch long are used as a filter for injecting
  • Clear shell capsules
  • Cotton balls are used as a filter for injecting
  • Covering arms all the time, wearing long sleeves
  • Cut up straws with burned marks and yellow tint on them which are used to inhale the heroin
  • Expensive personal and household items missing as addicts have been known to steal and sell items to buy more drugs. Trading with pawn shops is also common.
  • Heroin is smoked using a method referred to as "chasing the dragon." This involves heating up the powder on some foil, then inhaling the fumes through a small tube. The effect from this is felt very quickly, between two and five minutes after smoking.
  • Increase in soda cans in bedroom and/or the bottoms of them cut up
  • Missing shoe-laces and cut long rubber bands which are used when injecting
  • Needles
  • Owning a lot of lighters
  • Owning a new lock box or boxes that they won’t allow others to access
  • Small colored balloons used to package and transport heroin
  • Small pieces of foil that have burn marks on them including aluminum gum wrappers

Items Commonly Used to Hide Drug Use

While it can be difficult to determine whether a family member is using drugs, there are some common items used to hide drugs to keep an eye out for. View the Hidden in Plain Sight Website to learn what these common items look like. The website also offers tips on how to talk with your teen, and how to empower your teen with refusal skills.