Paraphernalia is the term used to describe equipment, materials, or products used for specific activities. In the legal sense, paraphernalia is most commonly used to describe any items that are associated with the making, concealing, packaging, or using of illegal drugs for recreational purposes. Drug paraphernalia covers a wide range of items for various types of drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. To explore this concept, consider the following paraphernalia definition.

Definition of Paraphernalia


  1. A furnishing, apparatus, or equipment used for a particular activity.
  2. In a legal sense, any such item used in connection with illegal drugs.


1470-1480       Medieval Latin paraphernālia

What is Paraphernalia

While most people connect the term paraphernalia with drug activities, it actually refers to items used specifically for any activity. For example, a baseball player’s paraphernalia may include a bat, balls, shoes, gloves, and any other special gear needed for the sport. Of course, this type of paraphernalia is not illegal to own, but paraphernalia used for drugs is against the law.

Drug paraphernalia may be any item that is used to produce, package, sell, or use illegal drugs. This type of gear is divided into two categories: (1) items used to distribute or manufacturer drugs, and (2) items used to transfer drugs into the body. Drug paraphernalia covers a wide range of objects, and the laws of some states specifically state what qualifies as drug paraphernalia.

Paraphernalia Used for Drugs

Illegal drugs can be ingested (swallowed), inhaled, or injected, depending on the type of drug, and the needs of the user. Drug paraphernalia, such as pipes, bongs, and packaging are sometimes difficult to recognize, as their design varies greatly, depending on who made them.

Modern items run towards bright or trendy colors, and often carry designs or insignia that are attractive to teens and young adults. The following examples of paraphernalia used for drugs may be rudimentary or stylish in appearance.

Paraphernalia Used for Inhalation

Inhalation of drugs may be done simply, by rolling the drug in cigarette papers, or it may be a complex process involving water. Paraphernalia used for inhalation of drugs includes:

  • Tobacco paper
  • Pipes (plastic, wood, ivory, or glass), cheaper versions may utilize small plumbing pipes
  • Water pipes
  • Bongs
  • Roach clips

Paraphernalia for Abusing Inhalants

Some people take advantage of a variety of chemicals commonly found around the house to get high. Known as “inhalant abuse,” the fumes of these substances are the target:

  • Lighter fluid
  • Paint
  • Paint thinner
  • Propane
  • Correction fluid (“white-out”), sharpies, and dry-erase pens
  • Gasoline
  • Other aerosol products

Items used to allow someone to inhale the fumes of these items include paper or plastic bags, tins, and even balloons.

Paraphernalia Used for Injection

Preparing drugs for injection into a vein requires some specialized equipment. An injection kit may contain:

  • Syringes
  • Needles
  • Spoon
  • Lighter
  • Cotton balls or steel wool (“Brillo”)
  • Tourniquet or belt

Paraphernalia for Packaging and Distributing Drugs

While some states include items used in the packaging and distribution of illegal drugs in their list of paraphernalia, other states place them in their own category. Paraphernalia for packaging and distributing drugs may include:

  • Scales used to weigh drugs
  • Equipment used to test the purity and strength of illegal drugs
  • Substances used to “cut,” or dilute the drugs before sale
  • Plastic bags, balloons, or other items used to package drugs into individual units for sale

Possession of Paraphernalia

It is common knowledge that possession of drugs such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines is an illegal act. Some people are unaware however, that items used in relation to selling, obtaining, and using those drugs can also result in criminal charges. Possession of paraphernalia is a crime in all states, though the exact laws vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction. Federal law prohibits the selling, transporting, importing, or exporting of drug paraphernalia.

A person may also be charged with possession of paraphernalia if he uses an ordinary household item for a drug-related purpose. For example, zip-lock bags are not considered paraphernalia on their own, but if they are used to hold any type of illegal drug, they fall under the paraphernalia category in that particular case.

Marijuana Paraphernalia

Marijuana paraphernalia is the most common drug-related item found by law enforcement. This includes any items used for planting, cultivating, growing, harvesting, compounding, transporting, packaging, storing, containing, selling, or using marijuana. Possession of marijuana paraphernalia for personal use, when considered on its own, is classified as a misdemeanor in most jurisdictions, but repeat offenders, or possession in connection with selling or distributing the drug usually results in more severe criminal charges.

Possession of paraphernalia laws are constantly changing when it comes to “pot,” as some states have begun legalizing the possession and use of marijuana. Although possession of marijuana, and marijuana paraphernalia, is now legal under various circumstances in many states, it is against federal law, regardless of the circumstance.

Penalties for Paraphernalia Possession

Commonly, possession of drug paraphernalia is classified as a misdemeanor offense, which may result in such penalties as fines and probation. Possession of drug-related items may be charged as a felony, however, depending on the items, and the specific situation. Conviction for a felony charge may result in such penalties as fines, felony probation, and/or prison time.

Generally speaking, possession of paraphernalia for personal use carries penalties less severe than penalties for possession of paraphernalia used to manufacture, package, or distribute drugs. Penalties for paraphernalia possession for personal use may also include court-ordered participation in a drug program, or providing community service.

Examples of Penalties for Paraphernalia Possession by State

  • Missouri – Possession of drug paraphernalia is a misdemeanor crime with a maximum sentence of 1-year in jail, and a $1,000 fine. Selling drug paraphernalia is subject to 5 years in prison, and a $5,000 fine.
  • Connecticut – Possession of drug paraphernalia with the intent to distribute, or more than 1/2 ounce of marijuana for personal use, are class C misdemeanors. This is punishable by up to 3 months in jail, and a $500 fine. Distributing paraphernalia is punishable by a year in prison, and a $2,000 fine. General possession is a minor infraction and results in a fine up to $300.
  • New Jersey – Possessing or using paraphernalia is considered a disorderly conduct offense, which is punishable by 6 months in jail, and a $1,000 fine. Sale of paraphernalia is punishable by 18 months in prison, and a $10,000 fine.

Supreme Court Addresses Sale of Drug Paraphernalia

In the 1970s, recreational use of drugs became widespread and generally more accepted by society, especially in regards to use by college students. Marijuana and cocaine were the most common types of drugs used. Famous musicians began writing songs about recreational drugs, and the drug culture found its way into comedy routines and movies.

During this time, drug paraphernalia products also became popular, quickly growing into a multi-million dollar industry. Although drug paraphernalia was first sold on the streets, it wasn’t long before shops dedicated to selling these items opened in most cities. Some shops, commonly referred to as “head shops,” even advertised their business, leading lawmakers to be concerned that they were promoting drug use among young people.

In response to the increase in head shops, cities and towns began passing ordinances prohibiting the sale of drug paraphernalia. One such ordinance was developed in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, as the city sought to ban the sale of drug paraphernalia by requiring shops to obtain a business license before opening. The application for the license required the business owner to sign an affidavit stating neither he, or his employees, had ever been charged with a drug-related offense. The license also granted to authorities the power to inspect the business at any time.

An attorney for Hoffman Estates was contacted by a business called “Flipside.” The business asked the attorney for guidance on what could be sold without a license. After the consultation, Flipside decided not to apply for the license and removed items from its shelves. It then filed a lawsuit in federal court, claiming the city’s ordinance was vague and overbroad. The plaintiff also claimed that the ordinance violated its due process under the Fourteenth Amendment.

This case, Hoffman Estates v. The Flipside, was heard in the Northern District Court of Illinois in 1980, ruled in favor of the ordinance. When Flipside appealed the ruling, the appellate court reversed the district court’s decision, agreeing that the language of the ordinance was too vague, in that it did not clearly state what paraphernalia was prohibited.

Hoffman Estates took the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard the case in 1981. The Court ruled that the Hoffman Estates ordinance was valid, and that it did not infringe on any constitutional rights. Justice Thurgood Marshall delivered the Court’s opinion, stating:

“Many American communities have recently enacted laws regulating or prohibiting the sale of drug paraphernalia. To determine whether these laws are wise or effective is not, of course, the province of this Court. We hold only that such legislation is not facially overbroad or vague if it does not reach constitutionally protected conduct and is reasonably clear in its application to the complainant.”

This important ruling by the High Court led to the institution of similar ordinances in other jurisdictions. Having dealt with the constitutionality of restricting or banning the sale of drug paraphernalia, legislatures across the country drafted laws banning the sale of such items.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Criminal Act – An act committed by an individual that is in violation of the law, or that poses a threat to the public.
  • Criminal Charges – A formal accusation by a prosecuting authority that an individual has committed a crime.
  • Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
  • Expert Witness – A witness possessing training, education, skill, or experience in a specific subject, that is beyond that of the average person, who is allowed to give an opinion at trial.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.

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