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Smelling Drug Abuse

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Most of the signs that point towards drug abuse are behavioral. You may notice that your children or loved ones are borrowing more money than usual. Sometimes, there might even be drastic shifts in the way they act, communicate, or treat you and others. While there are a lot of reasons for sudden changes in behavior, you can never rule out the possibility of substance abuse. However, these signs alone can’t be definitive evidence for drug abuse. Thankfully, most drugs have a distinct smell, especially when they’re smoked. Because of this, your nose can be a crucial instrument in detecting drug use in your loved ones.


Meth is a very potent, very addictive stimulant that affects your central nervous system. It can come in the form of a crystalline powder that dissolves easily in water or alcohol.

When produced, meth reeks of a powerful odor much like ammonia or ether. These smells have often been compared to rotten eggs or cat urine. Since meth is made using powerful chemicals, the lab where it is made can have this “hospital smell” much like the chemicals used in medical facilities. Sometimes, meth labs can even smell like vinegar, or similar to window cleaners.

On the other hand, it is more complicated to determine what meth smells like when used versus produced. Meth, when used, has a lighter and more subtle scent which can almost be described as “sweet”.


Heroin is a highly illegal, highly addictive drug processed from morphine, a substance taken from the seed pods of certain poppy plants. It is typically sold as a white powder mixed with different substances like starch, sugar, or powdered milk.

Heroin is a drug that can be completely odorless unless it is mixed with other substances. When mixed with other substances, it can smell like cat urine, various chemicals, or even chocolate. Heroin gives off an acidic smell when smoked, similar to vinegar. Smoked heroin can smell sweet, but it can also smell like burnt food.


Cocaine is another stimulant drug that is highly addictive. It is a purified chemical called cocaine hydrochloride that comes from the coca plant. Before synthetic anesthetics were developed, cocaine was used to block pain. However, it was proven to be addictive and could cause adverse effects when used frequently.

A lot like the scent of meth labs, cocaine smells like mixed chemicals and burning plastic. It is comparable to the odor in the air in nail salons.


Marijuana is a greenish-gray mixture of the dried flowers of the plant Cannabis sativa. It is used both recreationally and for medicinal purposes. It can be addictive if the user experiences withdrawal symptoms when stopping the use of the substance.

Different strains of marijuana smell different from each other, making it hard to determine exactly the marijuana scent you may detect. However, marijuana usually has this slightly skunky grass smell, which is usually left behind by smoked cannabis leaves. Some describe the odor of marijuana as earthy and herbal, while some say it carries notes of lemon, plum, or diesel.

One thing is for sure, the smell of marijuana is very distinct. It may be hard to describe in words, but if you smell it once, you’ll be able to detect it easily in the future.


Phencyclidine, also known as PCP, is a drug originally developed as an anesthetic. It was discontinued because of its dangerous side effects, and it is illegal in the United States.

The ether used in producing PCP has a distinct chemical smell and can usually be detected on a person who uses the drug in its liquid form. The most common way of consuming PCP, however, is through smoking and when it burns, some say it smells like a permanent marker.


The drug that users say smells like a permanent marker is PCP or phencyclidine. It is a strong hallucinogen that is easy to distinguish from other drugs.


When smoked, many strains of marijuana give off a smell that is very similar to a skunk. Although there are many descriptions of what marijuana can smell like depending on the variety, marijuana has that skunky smell.


There are two particular kinds of drugs that users would say smell like burnt plastic: crack cocaine and meth. When smoked, these two substances release the odor of burnt plastic and chemicals. Although it may be difficult to distinguish which is which between the two drugs, the smell of burning plastic or chemicals coming from any substance should be enough of a sign that it is dangerous.


It is important to know what drugs smell like because it is one of the subtlest signs of drug abuse. Being aware of what different drugs smell like will allow you to pinpoint if what you’re smelling can be an illegal substance or not. The odors mentioned above may not always definitively point towards drug abuse, but it always helps to know.

Prevention and early detection are always better than a cure. Being alerted by certain smells you pick up can help address the possibility that someone you love may be using illegal drugs recreationally. Once you have an idea, it is much easier to think of the next step.

At Recovery Blvd, we can help you take that next step. If you or someone you love is going through addiction or substance abuse, it is never too late. Recovery may be a long process, but it is not impossible.

Our high-quality services and interventions include:

  • Advanced Relapse Prevention

  • Substance Abuse Counseling

  • Recovery Crossfit

All life is worth living and here at Recovery Blvd, you can seize the opportunity to live the life that you deserve.

If you would like to know more about Recovery Blvd, please call us at (533) 447-5057. You can also visit our drug recovery center in Portland at 1316 SE 12th Avenue, Portland, OR 97214, to book an appointment.

Disclaimer: This post serves a strictly educational use. It does not necessarily reflect the services, products, or therapeutic approaches of this establishment or its healthcare practitioners. The purpose of this blog is not to advertise the products, services, or therapeutic approaches of any other establishment that may be associated with this site. On the subject of safe or legal services, products, and appropriate therapies, recommendations ought to be given by a qualified professional on a case to case basis.

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