How to Identify Narcotics: Heroin, Cocaine, Meth, and More

Medically Reviewed

Narcotics have been a threat in the United States for decades and the problem is only growing. The most recent Drug Threat Assessment, released by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2017, showed that transnational criminal organizations, like Mexican cartels, have dramatically increased their presence in the U.S., setting up distribution offices all over the country. With them, the number of illicit drugs coming from overseas and across the borders has skyrocketed.

Narcotics are powerfully addictive drugs that make up a large portion of the overdose death rates that are currently driving the opioid epidemic. Most recently, the presence of a potent synthetic opioid called fentanyl has increased in the U.S. and it’s now causing overdose deaths to grow exponentially.

Understanding the threat of different types of narcotics and being able to identify them might help you protect your family from illicit drug use or, at least, in identifying a problem when it arises. Narcotics are typically drugs with a high risk for abuse, tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Being able to identify a narcotic in your home may be able to help you catch the disease of addiction before it takes root.

Learn what a narcotic is and how you can identify them and tell them apart.

Narcotic Drugs Defined

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the definition of the term “narcotic.” It is used as a medical term, a legal term, and it’s often used colloquially. To understand and accurately define and identify narcotics, it’s important to recognize the context in which the word is being used. Anyone who is a fan of etymologies and word origins might notice a similarity between narcotics and the word narcolepsy. Both share the same Greek root word “narke,” which means numbness or stupor. Narcolepsy is a disorder that causes sudden sleep, drowsiness, loss of muscle control, and hallucinations. Essentially, it’s a sleep disorder that causes numbness and stupor.

This same root rings true in the medical definition of narcotic, a psychoactive drug that can induce sleep and numbness. From a medical standpoint, narcotics are most commonly associated with poppy plant derivatives like morphine, opium, and heroin. Because the term carries a negative connotation today, the term opioid or opioid pain-reliever is more common in a medical context.

However, narcotic is still used in some medical circumstances.

For instance, hospitals and medical facilities often have “narcotic carts,” which are mobile cabinets that keep opioids securely locked up.

The legal definition of narcotics was first defined in the Single Convention on Narcotics in 1961.

It was an international treaty that sought to ban certain drugs labeled as “narcotics” from all trade, production, and supply.

The original version of the treaty banned opium and coca derivatives including heroin, morphine, and cocaine.

Though cocaine is a stimulant and has no sleep-inducing properties, it was labeled as a narcotic under the treaty.

Later, psychedelics were also added to the list including LSD and MDMA (ecstasy).

Today, narcotics have come to refer to any drug that is wholly illegal and has become a synonym for illicit drugs. Generally, prescription drugs that are illegally used would fall outside the term narcotic.

Examples of Narcotics and How To Spot Them


Opioids are a class of drugs that have been used as medical pain-relievers since the 19th century. Opiates include drugs like morphine that are derived from the opium poppy plant. Opioids describe a broader category that includes both naturally occurring opiates and synthetic versions like fentanyl. They are commonly used after surgeries, injuries, and chronic pain cases today, but their ability to cause a powerful euphoric high has led to their use as a recreational drug.

Morphine is a common opioid that was heavily used during the 20th century as a pain reliever, especially as a battlefield medication. It can effectively stop the pain but it causes a feeling of euphoria and has a high potential for abuse. It is sold as a liquid and in tablet form. It’s often injected but it can also be taken by mouth. In some medical settings, it can be used as a suppository.

Needles are the most common paraphernalia associated with morphine. Morphine is typically acquired from a prescription but can be illegally shared or purchased. However, other, more powerful opioids are more common on illicit drug markets.

Heroin is among the few drugs that classify as a narcotic in both the medical and legal definitions. It is the most popular opioid drug of abuse and causes physical and cognitive euphoria, sedation, pain relief, and anti-anxiety.

White, crystalline drugs in a plastic bagHowever, it has largely been replaced by other substances in medical use. On the street, heroin is often cut with other substances in an attempt to increase profits. It can be mixed with products that have no effect of their own like powdered milk or with other opioids and other drugs. These drug cocktails often cause an overdose in users that assume the drug is just heroin.

Heroin is usually purchased in powder form, which is white or light brown. It can be injected, smoked, or snorted but it is most commonly melted down and injected. Intravenous injection offers the most intense high but users run the risk of contracting infectious diseases.

High purity heroin can be smoked while still offering a potent high. Needles and spoons are the most common paraphernalia associated with heroin.

Synthetic opioids come in a variety of chemical compounds, levels of potency, and forms. Oxycontin and other prescription pain relievers are commonly used in medical settings and sold in pill form. They cover a wide range when it comes to power. Some are weaker than morphine while others, like fentanyl, are 100 times more powerful.

Fentanyl is becoming more prevalent in the illicit drug market and its power has caused thousands of overdose deaths in the past few years.

Recognizing fentanyl is a difficult task. It comes in powdered form and it’s typically an off-white or yellowish color. It’s often mixed with heroin to trick users into thinking that it is a more powerful, pure, and expensive bag.

Experienced users say they can spot the coloration difference in cocaine mixed with fentanyl but heroin can commonly be found in very similar shades. Fentanyl or fentanyl-mixed heroin is melted and injected with a needle.

Users who unknowingly use fentanyl, thinking it is the much weaker heroin, can begin to overdose before they realize something is wrong.


Cocaine is a stimulant drug that is derived from the coca plant, which has a naturally occurring psychoactive compound. In the native cultures of Peru and other South American regions, coca leaves have been chewed for thousands of years for a jolt of energy.

When isolated, cocaine can be extremely potent, causing feelings of euphoria, power, and energy.

As an illicit recreational drug, it’s sold as a white crystalline powder that is finely ground and dry. Compared to heroin, it’s rare to find other contaminants in a batch of cocaine.

However, some batches have been found to contain other substances like lidocaine and levamisole, which can cause medical complications when consumed. Cocaine is typically snorted but it can also be taken orally and intravenously. In some cases, users will rub it into their gums.

Crack is the same chemical as powder cocaine in its free-base form. In this form, it coagulates into a flakey, solid material. It’s easy to make crack out of powder cocaine, using only ammonia, water, and heat. The resulting substance can be burned, which allows users to smoke it. Crack offers a quick, intense high and often causes people to binge, taking several doses in quick succession to keep the feeling of euphoria going. Crack is often associated with pipes that can be homemade or store-bought.


Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant that is used for medical purposes and as a recreational drug. As a medication, it comes in pill form but pills can be crushed into a fine powder that’s used as an appetite suppressant and an ADHD treatment. As an illicit drug, crystal meth is sold as a substance that resembles small glass shards. It offers a euphoric high but it can cause anxiety, paranoia, and an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. High doses can cause convulsions, heart attack, stroke, and death. Long-term use is associated with psychosis that can take a long time to reverse. Meth is commonly associated with needles and pipes.

Seeking Recovery

If you believe that you or a loved one may be struggling with some form of a substance use disorder, there is help available. Though addiction is a chronic disease that cannot always be cured, it can be effectively treated with evidence-based therapies and personalized addiction treatment.

Active addiction is a hard road for both people suffering from a substance use disorder and their families, but you don’t have to go through it on your own. If you have questions, call anytime.

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