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Identifying Drugs Your Teen Might Be Using

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Parents know that drugs are harmful for their teen, but they might not know what specific drugs look like and how to identify them. This is important information, however, because identifying drugs that teens might be using can help parents better understand what’s going on with their child.

The more knowledge and awareness parents have, the more effective they can be in helping their children address the teen mental health conditions at the root of substance abuse. In this article, we’ll provide education on common drugs used by teens, including what drugs look like and recent statistics on teen usage.

Identifying Drugs: A Guide for Parents

Below are the most common drugs used by teens, as well as information on identifying drugs that parents may find in their child’s possession.


Marijuana, which comes from the Cannabis sativa plant, is one of the most common drugs used by teens. One-third of 10th graders and 44 percent of 12th graders have used marijuana, according to the most recent statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).The leaves have serrated edges and tend to fan out like the fingers of a hand. Cannabis in plant form looks like shredded leaves, stems, seeds, or flowers, stored in plastic bags. The material is usually green or brown in color, and it might look like tobacco.

Particularly now that marijuana legalization is widespread, teens may find it easier to access products containing THC, the active ingredient in the marijuana plant. Many vendors sell marijuana edibles, such as cookies, brownies, and gummies containing THC. Marijuana vaping is also popular among teens, using the plant matter itself or cartridges filled with cannabis oil. About 20 percent of teens vape marijuana, NIDA reports.


While cocaine use has been increasing among young adults over the past few years, the number of teens who use the drug is still fairly low. In 2020, 4 percent of high school seniors said they had used cocaine, according to NIDA’s Monitoring the Future report, which tracks drug use by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.

However, because cocaine is highly addictive and can be life threatening, parents should be aware of what the drug looks like. Powdered cocaine is sold in tiny glass vials with colorful lids or little bags. The cocaine itself is usually ground into a fine powder that might look like a confectioner’s sugar.

The crack version of cocaine contains powdered cocaine mixed with water and ammonia or baking soda. This mixture is heated until the water is removed, leaving behind tiny crystals of the drug. To identify drugs like cocaine, you can identify crystals that are typically an off-white color and look a bit like rock candy. The drug is sold in small glass or plastic vials with screw-top lids.


The drug LSD, also known as acid, is a hallucinogen that teens may use as a party drug. LSD is sold in liquid form, tablets, saturated sugar cubes, or blotter paper divided into small squares printed with colorful pictures of political figures, smiley faces, animals, or sports logos, with each square representing one dose.

Teens can then place these tiny squares of paper in their mouths and absorb the drug from the melting paper. A dose of LSD is often quite small, so teens might have pieces of paper with several of the same image printed over and over. NIDA statistics show that 4 percent of 10th graders and 6 percent of 12th graders have used LSD.

Magic Mushrooms

Teens who want to experience something new but find the idea of a man-made substance a bit frightening might experiment with magic mushrooms instead. These tiny mushrooms contain a hallucinogenic substance. They are usually sold in a dried format, and the packets may contain multiple mushroom caps as well as thin stems.

Some teens attempt to pick their own mushrooms and dry them for use. This is extremely dangerous in a different way, as many wild mushrooms are toxic and can lead to serious health problems, including death. As with other drugs, if parents find a packet of dried mushrooms in a teen’s room, it’s essential for them to confiscate it immediately and talk to their child about what it contains.


Ecstasy, also known as MDMA, is another hallucinogenic party drug. Originally developed as an appetite suppressant. MDMA lowers inhibitions and heightens perception. While ecstasy can be sold in liquid form, most teens buy the drug in pill format. The pills are often imprinted with images such as cartoon characters, clover leaves, peace symbols, hearts, and words such as “love” or “peace.”

NIDA reports that about 4 percent of high school seniors and 3 percent of sophomores in the United States have used MDMA. In 2020, the numbers were slightly lower, most likely because teens were gathering at parties and clubs less often due to the pandemic.


While heroin is usually not the first drug teens choose to take, it is one of the most frightening for parents because of its lethal and highly addictive nature. Teens who abuse heroin typically start by abusing substances such as prescription painkillers, other prescription drugs, or marijuana. As their use progresses, they may escalate to heroin abuse.

Heroin is processed from the seedpod of the poppy plant. It is commonly sold as a yellow, brown or black powder, contained in folded pieces of paper or tiny envelopes. Heroin produced in Mexico is often sold as a sticky black substance that resembles melted licorice.

Related: How to Spot Drug Paraphernalia


While methamphetamine (meth) use is low among teens—less than 2 percent use it, according to NIDA stats—it is such a dangerous and addictive substance that parents should include it when educating themselves on identifying drugs.

Meth, which can be snorted or injected, can have disastrous effects on the long-term physical and mental health of teens who abuse the drug. The drug can cause long-term changes in the brain that could affect a young person for the rest of their life.

Meth can be sold as a white powder that, again, looks like confectioner’s sugar or cocaine. Some manufacturers mix powdered methamphetamine with other substances to create a crystallized version of the drug. These pieces of crystal meth can be clear, white, yellow or even pink. Meth is often sold in tiny bags.

What Are the Next Steps After Identifying Drugs in a Teen’s Room?

Knowing what drugs look like is only the first step for parents in order to keep their teens safe. If they find drugs in their child’s room or personal belongings, parents need to take the following steps:

  1. Find a time to talk with your teen. Rather than being angry or judgmental, let them know how much you love them and that you are concerned for their health and well-being.
  2. Ask questions: Where did your teen get the drug? Why did they feel the need to use it? Where and with what friends are they using drugs with? Is there a stressful situation they are currently dealing with? Stress, anxiety, and trauma are risk factors for drug abuse.
  3. Educate your teen about the harmful impact of drugs on the central nervous system, as well as their functioning in daily life. Encourage them to do their own research on the topic so they understand the risks. If there is a family history of substance use disorder, make sure they know about it and understand that their brain and body may be more vulnerable to addiction as a result.
  4. Set (and stick to) clear consequences should you find drugs in your teen’s possession in the future.
  5. Consider getting a teen mental health assessment. While it’s fairly common for teens to experiment with drugs, having a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety is one of the risk factors that increases the likelihood of drug use. Substance abuse indicates that a teen is using drugs to self-medicate emotional pain. A teen may use drugs as an unhealthy coping mechanism for feelings of isolation, lack of self-esteem, or an underlying mental illness such as anxiety disorders, social anxiety, or depression.

Teen Substance Abuse Treatment at Newport Academy

Ultimately, identifying drugs is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end: helping teens find sustainable recovery from mental health and substance abuse issues with the support of mental health professionals. At Newport Academy, we address the traumatic events and attachment wounds underlying maladaptive behaviors like teen drug abuse. Our comprehensive, integrated care is tailored to each teen’s specific needs.

Contact Newport Academy today to learn more about our clinical model of care and to get started on the path to healing.

Key Takeaways

  • A parent should learn to identify different types of drugs to recognize if their teen is struggling with mental health issues at the root of substance abuse.
  • Teens may use marijuana by smoking it, consuming it in edibles, or using a vaping device.
  • Cocaine is not commonly used by teens, but because it is so dangerous parents should know how to recognize it. It comes in powdered or crystal forms sold in small vials or plastic bags.
  • Hallucinogenic drugs can take different formats. LSD comes in capsules of powder or soaked into squares or paper, while MDMA is usually sold in pill form. Both blotter paper and pills are often imprinted with decorative images, such as cartoon figures or smiley faces.
  • If you discover drugs in your child’s possession, act out of concern for their well-being rather than anger or judgment.

Frequently Asked Questions About Identifying Drugs

What do I do when I find drugs in my child’s room?

Stay calm. A panicked or angry reaction can make things worse. Educate yourself on commonly abused drugs. Talk to your child to try to determine the extent of the problem and if the drug use may be masking underlying mental health struggles.

Is there an app to identify drugs?

You can use a pill identifier app to identify prescription pills by color, size, shape, and imprint code. The best way to recognize street drugs is to familiarize yourself with drug images, such as those offered by the Drug Enforcement Administration. But the only way to positively identify a drug is to have it professionally tested.

How can I tell if my child is using drugs?

Normal teen behavior can mask many of the signs of drug use (mood swings, irregular sleeping patterns, monosyllabic communication, for example). When these behaviors are unusually extreme and accompanied by a sudden shift in friends or drop in grades, there may be reason for concern. Trust your instincts.

How do I talk to my teen about their drug use?

The most important part is to understand the emotions underlying your child’s behavior. Enlist the help of a professional (your child’s primary care doctor or a therapist, for example) if your child is unwilling to open up to you.