Guide to Identifying Drugs & What Various Drugs Look Like

To the untrained eye, drugs and other household products may look the same. If you suspect a loved one of substance use disorder, this is a crucial skill to open up the discussion in seeking addiction help. In the guide below, you will understand the differences between regular items and illegal drugs by inspecting them carefully.

When you don’t have prior experience with substance use, it can be difficult to identify illegal drugs by appearance. In most instances, they can look like regular medication pills, salt, sugar, or baby powder because they are mostly discrete and non-labeled. However, there are simple ways to inspect a substance closely to know if they are an illicit drug.

Guide To Identifying Drugs

Identifying a drug accurately comes down to using most or all of your senses to distinguish them from regular household items. Mostly, you can tell an illicit substance by its subtle appearance differences such as color and texture. If it’s very similar to other chemicals, you can also use your sense of smell to identify some drugs as well. What do illegal drugs look like? Take a look at the specific characteristics below of common drugs to help you discriminate better.

Identifying heroin

Heroin often comes in three forms:

  • White powdered heroin
  • Brownish powdered heroin
  • Sticky black tar-like heroin

The white heroin is identical to a finely ground powder. Most illicit variations blend them with milk or confectioners sugar, giving it a sweet smell. Brownish heroin will also have a similar texture but will be a little tainted ranging from a light tan to a brown shade.

Black tar heroin is quite different from both because it has a sticky liquid consistency. Heroin that is not refined such as black or brown will often have a vinegar-like smell, but it is possible for the white variant not to have that specific odor. One differentiating factor is finding related paraphernalia in the vicinity such as aluminum foil, syringes, cotton balls, spoons, and lighters.

Heroin can also come in different packaging. Pills that are crushed can come in suspicious medication bottles and some in ziplock bags. Black tar heroin is usually stored in opaque glass containers.


Now that we have understood how to tell if white powder is a drug such as heroin, it can be helpful to identify other powder-like substances such as meth. Meth is quite different from the confectioner’s sugar appearance of heroin–it is more close to brittle crystals, such as rock salt or small pieces of crushed glass. However, there are also different variations of meth:

  • Powdered meth: This is meth crushed finely to create a solution with alcohol or water. It can be color pink, orange, brown, gray, or yellow depending on the level of purity. It has no smell but is bitter in taste and is similar to a loose white powder such as flour or cornstarch.
  • Crystal meth: The more common appearance of meth, this substance is similar to crushed crystals, rock salt, or small gems. It is also bitter in taste and often stored in ziplock bags.
  • Tablets: Meth can also come in tablet form called yaba. This ‘yaba’ is mixed with caffeine for an added effect, which results in a pill that’s colored orange or brown.
  • Liquid: When meth is smuggled, it is often shipped in opaque containers in a syrupy texture that’s dark yellow. The substance is turned into powder again for use.


Crack or cocaine is another type of powder-like drug that varies subtly in appearance. The crack cocaine version of the drug is an impure type of substance that’s ranging from off-white to a dark yellow color. This is due to being mixed with other substances such as caffeine, sugar, and baking soda.

Pure cocaine is similar to a talc powder in appearance ranging from bright white to off-white color. When burned, both crack and cocaine smell of rubber or plastic. Crack and cocaine are often stored in small ziplock bags as a form of ‘dosages’ for the drug. To differentiate it from other substances, you can also inspect for drug paraphernalia such as spoons, rolled paper, or money, as well as a glass pipe that is as typically as long as a finger.

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Prescription medication

Identifying prescription medication as an illicit drug can be tricky since it can look like regular pills, capsules, or tablets taken from pharmacy stores. However, there’s a subtle difference in the amount of use of these drugs.

You will notice that your loved one often loses or runs out of the prescription much often than usual. They will also ask relatives and friends about the same drug they are taking, claiming that they forgot their own at home or someplace else. If they are taking a specific drug such as hydrocodone, you may see other drug containers with variants of different opioids such as oxycodone, oxymorphone, or morphine even when it is not prescribed by the doctor. Be wary of these subtle signs of potential drug abuse.


Marijuana is easier to spot than other powder-like drugs. You will be able to identify marijuana with these different characteristics:

  • Hash: It has a greenish, dark green, or brown color with a coarse texture that looks like dried up leaves rolled up into small balls. The hash is smoked and the smell is similar to a ‘skunk’ odor.
  • Powdered leaves: Some people prefer to take marijuana orally, such as in a drink mix. Thus, powdered leaves are also greenish or brownish in color, and they are usually blended in water or juice. Many people claim the powdered leaves taste similar to a pineapple.
  • Tincture: Marijuana tincture is often seen in containers with droppers, and it is commonly odorless. Tinctures are also taken orally as they are cannabis extracts mixed with an alcohol solvent.
  • Teabags: Another form of marijuana are teabags. They are often indistinguishable from other types of tea, but as you open up a packet, they will also have the ‘skunk’ odor and will have a coarser texture than regular tea leaves.

Now that we have fully understood what do different drugs look like, we can use these basic discriminating skills to identify drug misuse or addiction in a loved one. It is challenging to base your suspicions on intuition, but the ability to identify various kinds of illicit drugs can truly help. A gentle but honest conversation, an offer of help, as well as accountability, are some supports you can give when trying to help someone recover from substance use disorder.

Drug Abuse Suspicion? You Can Help

If you have identified drug abuse in a loved one, it can be sometimes confusing to know what the next step is. There are various resources you can reach out to in times of crisis–you can consult high-quality rehab centers to receive guidance and counseling regarding your situation. By taking this step, you can help your loved one recover from drug addiction.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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