Guide to Identifying Drugs

6 min read · 10 sections
Evidence-Based Care
Expert Staff

Drugs, both legal and illegal, come in a dizzying array of shapes and colors. The end product, whether pills or powder, liquid or plant, speaks to the chemical processes that make the substances look the way they do. This guide to identifying drugs will answer questions of why some drugs look the way they do, which in turn highlights some of the important differences between all the different kinds of drugs out there.

Identifying Heroin

Heroin use has “skyrocketed” across the United States, says US News & World Report, and most it comes through Mexico and Colombia. Certain species of the opium poppy plant produce seedpods with morphine, which requires filtering with lime and hot water to be fully extracted. The morphine is then mixed with ammonium chloride and filtered with warm water again, producing a brownish paste known as morphine base, which was smoked with a pipe in the opium dens of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

For heroin, however, the morphine base has to be pressed into bricks and then left to air-dry. The morphine base is combined with many other chemicals, and extensively processed many times, in order to filter out the impurities until what is finally left is a white, powder-like substance that is instantly recognizable as heroin. It takes approximately 10 tons of raw opium for a single ton of heroin to be made.

Heroin is usually mixed with a cutting agent, a chemical that is used to dilute the drug with a substance less expensive than the drug itself.

It is a way for manufacturers, suppliers, and dealers to sell impure products to buyers while retaining enough of the actual product to make a profit. The precise way white powdered heroin looks and feels depends on what substance it was cut with. Since sugar looks similar, it is often cut with heroin, and an eagle-eyed buyer (or law enforcement officer) might notice that the “heroin” is more crystalline than powdery. Similarly, since powdered cocaine and powdered heroin look alike, the resultant combination takes on the consistency of soft and fluffy baby powder.

The Colors of Heroin

The many ways of cutting white heroin show that the color of the drug has nothing to do with its purity. Heroin, in its natural form, is dark brown or gray. The more impure the heroin, the cheaper it is; the cheaper the heroin, the more it is sold and used.

There are four main types of heroin, each one slightly different from the other. White heroin is the most common form, but the others are nonetheless popular and dangerous. Black tar heroin looks like ash in its powdered form, but when heated (or if the black tar is obtained very fresh in the creation process), it looks shiny and is almost liquid to the touch.

Brown heroin is one of the most basic forms of the drug, and the fact that it burns at a lower temperature means it is normally smoked rather than injected (compared to white heroin, which is almost always taken intravenously). Because brown heroin is undiluted, it tends to be less powerful than the other varieties, and so it is also priced quite cheaply. In Vermont, for example, the state is struggling with such a wave of narcotics trafficking and abuse that Vice magazine used the term “the brown mountain state” to emphasize the extent of the problem.

Packaging Heroin

Since heroin is highly illegal, it is packaged to be as inconspicuous as possible. The drug is normally placed in folded-up squares of aluminum wrap and small plastic zip-lock bags, but smugglers come up with innovative (and dangerous) ways to move their product. Some empty gelatin capsules of their original contents, replace the capsules with heroin powder, and then swallow the capsules or even insert them anally in order to transport the drug through customs. However, this is not a foolproof method; in 2015, an Afghan man passed out after consuming 95 such capsules (and was arrested after medical scans revealed his contraband), and a Tanzanian man died that same year after swallowing 30 heroin capsules.

One of the more common ways of moving heroin around involves drivers (working for a dealing ring) filling their mouths with tiny balloons of heroin, with a bottle of water on hand to wash down the balloons if they are pulled over by the police. One dealer told an author that he could fit more than 30 balloons in his mouth, saying, “It’s amazing how many balloons you can learn to carry.”

When the driver makes contact with a buyer, the driver simply spits out the previously agreed upon number of balloons, accepts payment, and returns to the dealer.

Prescription Medication Abuse

Oxymorphone (Opana)Heroin sits atop the mountain of illegal opioids, but opioids that are legally obtained through a doctor’s prescription have caused seismic problems throughout America. As recently as March 2016, The Economist warned that “America’s opioid epidemic is worsening.” Over 52,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2015, and 33,000 of those deaths were from opioids, whether heroin or prescription painkillers.

According to a January 2017 article in the Washington Post, the epidemic was “created” by OxyContin, manufactured in 1996 by Purdue Pharma. OxyContin was marketed as an extended-release painkiller, offering 12-hour relief to patients with severe levels of physical stress. However, OxyContin’s original chemical formulation was “particularly prone to abuse.” People desperate for pain relief, or people looking for a “legal” way to get high, could simply crush the pills and chew, snort, or inject the resultant powder to get 12 hours of dosage in a single shot.

What do these pills look like? OxyContin pills are universally round, but differ in color based on dosage – 10 mg pills are white, for example, while 160 mg pills are blue. The drug also comes in capsules and a liquid form.

Other prescription opioids that are also topics of concern for their abuse potential include Percocet and Vicodin. Unlike OxyContin, these two medications come in both round and elliptical shapes.

Prescription Controls

Why Mix Codeine and Alcohol Together?Prescription drugs are usually found in pharmacies, but off limits to the general public unless a customer can produce a prescription from a doctor, nurse practitioner, or otherwise licensed healthcare provider. Some drugs may be of a low enough risk that all that is required is a phone call or computer order to authorize a pharmacy to sell a patient the medication; for the more addictive drugs (painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet, to name a few), a written note with the provider’s signature is required.

A fully filled out doctor’s prescription specifies the name of the patient, the name of the doctor, what drugs should be sold to the patient, and the dosage of the drugs. Prescriptions should also carry the number of refills the patient will need – either none at all or enough for the next 12 months. Potentially addictive medications will be limited to the first order and two refills (but possibly less based on the doctor’s discretion). Very heavily addictive medications cannot be refilled except by way of having a prescription with every visit to a pharmacy.

Diversion and Abuse

The controls are in place because of how risky these drugs are and because of the chance of abuse. The chance of abuse is what leads desperate patients and addicts looking for a high to come up with various ways (some of them illegal) to get a supply of pills.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) quotes a 1999 statistic from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that said that over 4 million Americans used prescription drugs for “nonmedical reasons,” which is far more than the number of people who reported heroin or cocaine use.

AAFP identified some of the way legitimate patients and “pseudopatients” might try and con their doctors (or healthcare providers) into writing prescriptions under false pretenses. People engaging in drug diversion (attempting to obtain prescription drugs for recreational use) might try to request an appointment at the end of the business day, or even show up a few minutes before the clinic or pharmacy closes, hoping to take advantage of a tired doctor or pharmacist.

A reluctance to share details or cooperate is a big sign of a person attempting to score prescription drugs for recreational or abusive use. Diverters will attempt to minimize the amount of time they have to spend at their doctor’s office or pharmacy, saying they need to be given a prescription immediately because they have an important appointment or a flight to catch. They may claim to not have a local address, saying they are traveling through the area on business or to visit family.

Similarly, a diverter may refuse to have a physical exam and may deny access to past medical records and previous healthcare providers. Feigning forgetfulness, or offering vague names and addresses, could be an example.

Faking (or exaggerating) symptoms is a very typical way that patients and pseudopatients try to cheat their way to a prescription. Symptoms hard to detect by way of a medical exam (generalized pain or headaches, for example) are commonly employed because the patient can then claim that past healthcare practitioners refused to take the “ailment” seriously.

What Does Prescription Fraud Look Like?

Tragically, some patients go so far as to legitimately injure themselves, reasoning that their injury is the best way for them to be given a prescription. A researcher who authored a report in the JAMA Pediatrics journal told the Washington Post that the public health danger this method poses rivals that of unfettered access to firearms.

While some diverters are light on details, a patient who appears to have an unusually good understanding of medications might suggest a patient who is invested in the medications for far more than their therapeutic use. Patients being well informed about specific medications could also be a case of responsibility and due diligence (especially if the patient has been receiving such medications for a long period of time), but a doctor will have to be sure that the knowledge is coming from a legitimate place. Similarly, patients may make requests for very specific drugs, refusing (perhaps angrily) to accept anything other than the drug they want, blaming allergies or negative experiences with alternatives the doctor suggests.

Conversely, some drug diverters feign ignorance, playing dumb in the hope that the doctor will not suspect them of trying anything nefarious. However, if such “patients” attempt to steer the prescription conversation toward the drug that they really want, this should tip the doctor off.

Very commonly, people trying to get medication outside of a legitimate prescription will say that they lost their prescriptions, forgot to bring it with them, or had their supply stolen.

Drug Diversion

Drug diversion is a serious healthcare problem; rerouting prescription medication for recreational or abusive use costs $72.5 billion every year. As much as prescription painkillers like OxyContin or Vicodin have become household names for their effectiveness in treating severe pain, they are also the substances of choice for recreational users and drug smugglers. For that reason, state governments are not giving prescription fraudsters any leeway, cracking down hard against doctors who turn a blind eye to giving out controlled medication for extra money. The Attorney General’s Office and the Division of Consumer Affairs of New Jersey revoked the licenses of 31 local doctors for “over-prescribing painkillers and other narcotics that can lead to addiction,” and legislators in Oregon are considering limiting the initial prescriptions of opioid-based medicines to just seven days, to lessen the chances that patients can become addicted to their supply.

From Cannabis to Marijuana

Some General Effects of Laced Marijuanastates, and generally (if unofficially) decriminalized in yet more states. The drug’s effects and legal status are always a hot-button political issue, so being able to identify it (and, crucially, to know what marijuana is and what it isn’t) is very important.

The leaves, stems, and seeds of the Cannabis sativa plant is where marijuana is derived from. The resin secreted by the plant contains a chemical known as tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC is the primary chemical behind the psychological effects that a user experiences when smoking marijuana or consuming a food product made with THC. It is similar in composition to the body’s natural cannabinoid chemicals and binds to the same receptors in the brain and central nervous system that those cannabinoids bind to. Many other compounds are found in the resin glands of the cannabis plant, all of which have similar effects as THC, although not as concentrated.

THC has mild-to-moderate analgesic (painkilling) effects, and limited research has suggested that marijuana can help some patients with their pain management. THC also stimulates appetite, induces a relaxed state in patients, and can reduce nausea and vomiting. For these reasons, some in the scientific, medical, and legal communities have advocated for THC (as marijuana) to be prescribed for patients suffering from chronic pain, nausea, sleep disturbances, and anorexia.

As a recreational drug, marijuana is typically smoked like a cigarette or in a pipe or bong. As one of the most commonly used drugs in the United States, the culture that has grown around marijuana use has also led to the development of other products with THC, such as teas, brownies, chocolate bars, and balm (which may offer some benefits for medicinal use). Whether for recreational or medicinal use, cookies, cakes, sodas, and candies with higher THC concentrations than marijuana joints have become commonplace in head shops and in culture based on the cultivation and use of marijuana.

Why Identification Matters

By knowing how to properly identify various drugs of abuse, people can protect themselves and their family members from unknowingly consuming a substance that is dangerous. If people suspect a loved one of abusing a substance, they may be able to get a rough idea of the substance via basic identification practices. That being said, the only foolproof way to identify a drug is via professional testing.

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