A Guide to Recognizing Drug Paraphernalia and Their Use

Although drug abuse and addiction rates have stabilized in the last few years, rates of fatal overdoses have increased. Mostly, opioid drugs, including prescriptions and illicit heroin, are to blame for the increase in overdoses and drug-related deaths. For friends and family, knowing how to recognize drug paraphernalia can be the first step in addressing a loved one’s addiction, and getting them the help they need. 

What is drug paraphernalia? 

Drug paraphernalia refers to the tools and items that a person uses to make, abuse, and conceal drugs. These products and accessories can vary significantly from one drug to the next. For example, the tools used to process and store marijuana are much different than the items a person would use to get high on crack cocaine. Also, many drugs can be used in a smoking apparatus or pipe. For loved ones, knowing how to recognize the subtle difference between an item used to smoke meth, versus an object used to smoke marijuana, can make a difference in how they would approach treatment with someone who is addicted to one of these substances. 

Can people buy drug paraphernalia?

Paraphernalia is often sold in head shops, specialty stores, online, or in convenience stores. But, many users will make their paraphernalia. It’s possible for someone to create a pipe out of everyday, household items, or to store their drugs in sandwich bags or plastic storage containers. A lot of drug paraphernalia is homemade because it can be difficult for users, especially in rural or isolated communities, to find drug paraphernalia items to purchase. 

Is drug paraphernalia legal to sell and purchase?

Drug paraphernalia is not legal to sell or purchase, but that doesn’t stop anyone from manufacturing and attempting to market the items to users. Mom-and-pop convenience stores and headshops will frequently stock and sell drug paraphernalia items, which are charged as a separate crime under many state and federal laws. While most people are fully aware that possessing an illicit drug will result in a criminal charge, most people don’t understand that they are subject to separate criminal charges for possessing the items they use to store and use drugs. So, how can head shops and other stores get away with selling pipes, bongs, and other drug paraphernalia if it’s technically illegal?

It has to do with the language the stores use to market and label their items. The store is not selling a “bong,” it is selling a novelty water pipe. The store is not selling a “bowl” for smoking marijuana or other illegal drugs. It’s selling a novelty tobacco pipe. Containers that someone would use to store drugs are actually jewelry cases according to the store. This is one of the reasons why stores have stringent rules against referring to any illegal drug use by both employees and the customers. This same manipulation of the language regarding these items is also how stores were able to sell wine glasses, beer mugs, and decanters during the era of alcohol prohibition. 

The items a store sells only become drug paraphernalia in the eyes of the law once the customer purchases the item, leaves the store, and then uses the item for an illegal purpose. Any item, whether it was sold in a headshop or made out of everyday household products, doesn’t technically become illegal drug paraphernalia until the owner uses it for either making, hiding, or getting high on drugs. The proof that law enforcement needs to classify an item as drug paraphernalia and to charge the user with a crime is if there is drug residue on the item or drugs are concealed within the item. Otherwise, it’s just a novelty tobacco pipe or a jewelry box. 

How has technology changed drug paraphernalia?

According to the DEA, drug paraphernalia frequently includes the following types of items:

  • E-Cigarettes
  • Pipes 
  • Tin foil
  • Rolling papers 
  • Cigars
  • Roach clips
  • Bongs 
  • Hookahs
  • Hypodermic needles
  • Small spoons
  • Small mirrors
  • Razor blades
  • Straws and paper tubes
  • Cards
  • Surgical masks and dust masks
  • Aerosol cans
  • Tubes of glue
  • Balloons
  • Nozzles
  • Rags

Many of these items aren’t sold in headshops and are everyday products that can be found in anyone’s home. Until there is evidence of drug use, the item is not considered drug paraphernalia. For concerned loved ones, knowing how to recognize drug paraphernalia can be critical to getting someone the help they need for addiction. 

Other everyday household objects can also be used for covering up drug use. For example, breath fresheners are often used to cover up the smell of drugs. Eye drops are also frequently used to conceal bloodshot eyes from smoking marijuana. Users will also wear sunglasses at strange times to hide pinprick or dilated pupils. Empty marker and pen casings, and hollow lipstick tubes are also used to conceal drugs. People who abuse ecstasy or MDMA tablets will sometimes hide their drugs in bags of candy, where they are easily concealed. 

The internet has completely changed the way people do business and socialize. In 2011, a website known as The Silk Road opened for business. The site was only recently shut down, but for several years it was the go-to place for selling and buying illegal items, including drugs. At one point, up to 70% of The Silk Road’s items were illicit narcotics. Stolen items, artwork, and drug paraphernalia were also sold on The Silk Road. The reason why the website was able to run and operate for so long was because of a new type of software program called TOR and items called BitCoin. 

TOR allows users to remain anonymous online. The software works by directing internet traffic through thousands of relays. This process completely confuses the ability of trackers to follow, analyze, and survey a person’s internet use. TOR cannot wholly guarantee anonymity since the site was eventually shut down. But, it can make it much easier for people to evade law enforcement for more extended periods. 

Also, people bought and sold items on The Silk Road with BitCoins, a crypto-currency. Crypto-currencies did not exist only ten years ago. People can buy BitCoins anonymously online with real money, although BitCoin values drastically fluctuate every day. On The Silk Road, the buyers and the sellers did not exchange real currencies that can be easily tracked. The “eBay for Drugs” boomed when users realized how little risk was associated with using the website. Although The Silk Road is no longer in business, the technology used to enhance the black marketplace for drugs and other illicit items is here to stay. 

What should someone do if they find drug paraphernalia in a loved one’s possession?

Finding drug paraphernalia items in a loved one’s house or room can be an unpleasant experience. But confronting the individual sooner rather than later can prevent them from experiencing some of the worst kinds of consequences of drug addiction, including legal and financial problems, irreversible health problems, and accidental overdoses. Early intervention and rehabilitation give the user the best opportunity for achieving lifelong sobriety and healing. 

When confronting a loved one about drug paraphernalia, it can be easy to approach the person from a place of anger and blame. But blaming the individual or coming across as angry will only alienate them and make them more likely to lie about their drug use. Being lied to can also trigger a concerned loved one’s anger. For many loved ones who find drug paraphernalia, speaking to a counselor or drug intervention specialist before approaching an addicted person can help. These specialists can give concerned loved ones tips and advice on how to talk to someone about drug addiction. Approaching a loved one with a confrontational intervention can quickly backfire. 

What can also benefit concerned loved ones is reaching out to a drug addiction counselor or specialist first with their concerns. Rarely do individuals manage to achieve initial sobriety and maintain that sobriety if they are pressured into treatment by angry and scared family members or friends. Instead, loved ones should try to focus on incentives for the addicted person, and try to make it easy for them to talk to a doctor about their addiction. Many addicts want to get better, but they do not know where to start. In many cases, an addicted person will feel more comfortable speaking to a professional doctor privately than going through intervention or confrontation with their family. Unfortunately, fear, blame, and high emotion drive many interventions, and they can backfire. 

Have you found drug paraphernalia within a loved one’s possession? The drug abuse counselors at Mission Harbor Behavioral Health understand how scary this situation can be. But there is hope. Early intervention will give your loved one the best chances of recovery from drug abuse and addiction. Our rehabilitation facility offers a variety of different treatment options that are tailored to the individual’s needs. We’ve helped hundreds of teenagers, men, and women recover from drug abuse and addiction and maintain sobriety with ongoing, customized counseling sessions. Please contact Mission Harbor today to learn more about how our treatment centers can help your family heal from drug addiction.