You should know this: How to spot drug users

PillsYou’re on the bus and the guy across from you has dilated eyes and can’t stop scratching his face.  What drug is he on?  Is he likely to harm you?  Amy Rice interviewed a police drug expert to learn how to tell if a person is under the influence of illegal drugs, what drug they’re using and what behavior to expect.



Names: Coke, snow, flake, blow, rocks. (As with all drugs, new names are evolving all the time.)

Cocaine Base is oil-based and does not dissolve in water. Cocaine Hydrochloride dissolves in water. Cocaine Base is known as rock or crack cocaine. Rock and crack cocaine is smoked. Cocaine Hydrochloride, a powder, is usually sniffed through a straw up the nose, or dissolved in water then injected into the body with a hypodermic needle and syringe. Rock cocaine is hard, like a bar of soap. If sold in small sizes it will usually come wrapped in foil, plastic baggies, and or stuffed inside toy balloons. Cocaine powder will usually be packaged in a paper twist, plastic baggies, foil, small glass vials or toy balloons.

Immediate effects: The high from a typical inhaled dose of cocaine lasts for about 20 minutes. During this time a user may appear very alert, confident, energetic and stimulated.  Physical signs include jumpiness, dilated eyes and a runny nose.  The high from cocaine is followed by profound depression, an intense desire for another dose of the drug, mental fatigue, restlessness and irritability.  Watch for an individual exhibiting a superman high, unusual agitation and peak happiness down to base line despair.  Beware of violent tendencies.

Long term effects: Premature aging, depression, insomnia, paranoia and convulsions.  Chronic users may have little or no appetite leading to pronounced weight loss.

Paraphernalia:  Objects a person carries may be as strong an indicator of drug use as their actions and appearance.  Paraphernalia associated with inhaling cocaine include mirrors, razor blades, straws and rolled-up paper money, while paraphernalia associated with injecting the drug include syringes, needles, spoons and belts, bandanas or surgical tubing used to constrict the veins.

Methamphetamines, a.k.a. meth

Names: Speed, meth, chalk, ice, crystal, glass

Immediate effects:  Like cocaine and crack, the physical effects of methamphetamines and related amphetamines are increased alertness, euphoria, appetite loss, dilated pupils, elevated heart rate, increased respiration and elevated body temperature.

Long term effects:  Prolonged use of these drugs can cause blurred vision, dizziness, loss of coordination and collapse. An overdose can result in high blood pressure, fever, stroke and heart failure.

Paraphernalia:  Meth is sold in small plastic or paper packets or plastic bags. The items associated with inhaling the drug are razor blades, mirrors, straws and rolled dollar bills; with injecting the drug include syringes, spoons and surgical tubing, bandanas or a belt used to constrict the vein.

MDNA, a.k.a. ecstasy

Names: E, XTC, X, Adam, hug, beans, love drug

MDNA (3, 4 methylenedioxymethamphetamine) is a central nervous system stimulant, hallucinogen, and a selective serotonergic neurotoxin.

Immediate effects: Grinding teeth, excessive emotional warmth, increased stamina and enhanced sensory perception.  Can also cause anxiety, agitation and recklessness, nausea, chills, sweating, muscle cramping and blurred vision. Overdose may bring about high blood pressure, faintness, panic attacks, a loss of consciousness and seizures.

Long term effects: Impaired memory, depression, sleep disturbance.  Also, elevated anxiety, impulsiveness and loss of appetite.  You are unlikely to know an ecstasy user if you run into one on the street.

Paraphernalia:   Ecstasy is often mixed with candy, frequently tootsie rolls. Dealers warm up the candy and insert ecstasy pills.   Butterfly wings are the universal symbol of MDMA.  Dealers often wear hats or shirts with butterfly emblems or “E” or “X” displayed.  Users carry products used to take advantage of enhanced vision and senses: most commonly Vicks inhalants, cough drops, lights wands, Tiger Balm and lotions. Also, tootsie roll pops, or any candy on a stick, and baby pacifiers because MDMA causes teeth grinding. The pacifiers are often worn on necklaces.



Names: Pot, ganja, weed, grass, and many others.

Immediate effects:  In low doses, marijuana can induce restlessness, a dreamy state of relaxation, red watery eyes and increased appetite.  The best way to identify marijuana use is through the strong, pungent smell of the smoke.  Stronger doses can cause shifting sensory images, rapidly fluctuating emotions, fantasies and hallucinations or image distortions.

Long term effects: Prolonged use may cause a loss of motivation and weight gain.

Paraphernalia: Paraphernalia associated with marijuana includes pipes, bongs, rolling papers, plastic bags, roach clips, decorative boxes called “stash boxes” used for storage and eye drops and breath fresheners used to cover up signs of drug use.


Names: Smack, H, ska, junk

Heroin comes in powder form. On the West Coast, it is brown and generally mixed with an agent, which is white to give a light brown powder similar in appearance to powdered chocolate milk. On the East Coast the most common form is China White.

The most common way to use heroin is by mixing it with water, heating it so it will dissolve into a liquid form, then injecting it into a vein. It can also be smoked by placing it on a piece of foil/spoon, heating the bottom until it turns to a vapor/smoke form, then inhaling it through your nose or throat.

Immediate effects: lethargy/sleepiness, constricted pupils, droopy eyelids, depression, apathy, decreased physical activity and nausea. A frequent user may nod or appear sleepy, and repeatedly scratch or touch their face and nose. Larger doses of heroin may induce sleep, vomiting and shallow breathing. The high from the drug usually lasts from four to six hours.  An overdose can cause slow and shallow breathing, clammy skin, convulsions, coma or death.

Long term effects: collapsed veins, open sores, flesh rotting off arms.  Heroin is extremely addictive and, as with cocaine and methamphetamines, addicts often resort to crimes such as burglary, grand theft, robbery or prostitution to support their habits.  Be very wary of heroin users.

Paraphernalia: For injecting heroin, paraphernalia include hypodermic needles, small cotton balls used to strain the drug and blackened spoons or bottle caps used with water to “cook” or liquefying heroin. Paraphernalia for inhaling or smoking heroin includes razor blades, straws, rolled dollar bills and pipes.


Lysergic acid diethylamide, a.k.a. LSD

Names: Acid, blotter, and many others.

Immediate effects:  The hallucinogenic effect of LSD can last from 2-12 hours. During this time, judgment may be impaired, visual perception may seem distorted and the sense of reality may become highly distorted.  Physical effects of LSD include dilated pupils, elevated body temperature, high blood pressure, hallucinations and a disoriented sense of direction, distance and time. Bad trips can result in panic, paranoia, anxiety and loss of control, confusion and even psychosis.  Users may do harm to themselves and others while under the influence of LSD.

Long term effects:  Users of hallucinogens do not exhibit marked long term physical effects.  However, users may experience hallucinogenic flashbacks years after taking LSD.

Paraphernalia: Sold as capsules, tablets or liquid. A microscopic drop of the drug can be put on paper, small gelatin squares or any other absorbent material and ingested.  Anything that can be swallowed can be used as a carrier for LSD.

Phencyclidine, a.k.a. PCP

Names: Angel dust, ozone, wack, rocket fuel

Immediate effects: many of the same indicators as LSD, including detachment from reality or estrangement from surroundings. A single dose may last for days.  Other symptoms include rapid and involuntary eye movement, an exaggerated walk, numbness, slurred speech, blocked speech and a loss of coordination.  Low doses produce sedation and euphoria with quick mood changes from sedation to excitement or agitation. Larger doses may produce a coma-like condition with muscle rigidity and a blank stare with the eyelids half closed.

PCP is the most dangerous hallucinogen because of its power to produce psychosis indistinguishable from schizophrenia. PCP can cause extraordinary strength, a sense of invulnerability and extreme image distortion. The user may become violent, causing injury to themselves or others. Although such extreme psychotic reactions are usually associated with repeated use of the drug, they have been known to occur in some cases after only one dose.

Paraphernalia:  Foil or paper packets or stamps off which PCP is licked. Needles, syringes, and tourniquets for injected PCP.  Leafy herbs such as tobacco, marijuana or oregano for mixing with PCP that is smoked.

Magic mushrooms

Names: shrooms

Immediate effects:  The effects of mushrooms are very similar to LSD. Small doses can bring on excitement and euphoria, while bigger doses can bring on shape and color distortions and vivid hallucinations. Users may exhibit nausea, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains.

Long term effects:  Little research has been done into the long-term effects of mushrooms. There are no serious problems such as dependence and withdrawal associated with the drug.

Paraphernalia:  Minimal.  After picking, mushrooms are usually eaten raw, cooked, made into a drink, or dried for later consumption. They are usually sold loose in bags or crushed into tablets.

Recognize a meth lab

Meth labs are extremely dangerous places packed with flammable/explosive chemicals and highly toxic gases.  Meth labs can be found in small places like a trash can or a trunk of a car.  They may also be found in remote locations outdoors to take advantage of ventilation and privacy.  Methamphetamines are produced, or “cooked,” when the main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, is mixed with various chemicals, including starter fluid, drain cleaner, rock salt, lithium batteries, camping fuel, tincture of iodine, anhydrous ammonia and even the striking pad from matches or flares, which contain phosphorous.


The most common waste includes blister packs such as those used to package Sudafed, coffee filters with red stains, propane tanks and bottles for drain cleaner or household cleaners.  If you come across a collection of these materials, your life is in danger.  Do not smell them or investigate in any way.  Get away and call the police.

Attributes of residential meth labs:

  • Unusual, strong chemical odors like cat urine, ether, ammonia or acetone. Residences with windows blacked out.
  • Excessive trash including large amounts of items such as: antifreeze containers, lantern fuel cans, red chemically stained coffee filters, drain cleaner and duct tape.
  • Unusual amounts of clear glass containers being brought into the home.
  • Excessive traffic coming and going.
  • Rent paid in cash.

Materials found in meth labs can include:

  • Alcohol
  • Ether
  • Benzene
  • Toluene/paint thinner
  • Freon
  • Acetone
  • Chloroform
  • Camp stoves or hot plates
  • Starting fluid
  • Iodine crystals
  • Red phosphorous
  • Black iodine
  • Red Devil Lye
  • Drain cleaners
  • Battery acid/sulfuric acid
  • Epsom salts
  • Wooden matches
  • Propane cylinder
  • Ephedrine (over-the-counter)
  • Cold tablets
  • Bronchodialators
  • Energy pills or diet aids
  • Rock salt

It’s important to stay safe, especially when in the presence of potentially threatening drugs and drug users. Keep your wits about you, wherever you are.

Guest Contributor

Self-Reliance Central publishes a variety of perspectives. Nothing written here is to be construed as representing the views of SRC. Reproduced with permission.