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Found a baggie of white powder, so how do I identify it?
May 18, 2010 12:21 PM   Subscribe

Found a baggie of white powder, so how do I identify it?

I don't want to buy any of these testing kits yet, so is there any quick way to figure out what it is using chemicals that would normally be found in a science teacher's classroom?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (48 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
If it foams up with vinegar, it's baking soda. That would be one of the quickest tests.
posted by mikeh at 12:24 PM on May 18, 2010


Find an experienced friend and have them snort a pinch?
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:24 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


You identify it by calling the police.
posted by proj at 12:24 PM on May 18, 2010 [8 favorites]


What will you do with it once you've identified it?
posted by Logophiliac at 12:25 PM on May 18, 2010


Cocaine is sometimes cut with baking soda. So foaming wouldn't necessarily indicate that it's just baking soda, right?
posted by dfriedman at 12:26 PM on May 18, 2010


Do you really want to get caught with something and have your only excuse be "I swear I don't know what it is and I found it in a parking lot"? Call the police or just flush it.
posted by nestor_makhno at 12:27 PM on May 18, 2010


What does it smell like?
posted by craven_morhead at 12:27 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Find an experienced friend and have them snort a pinch?
posted by Mars Saxman at 12:24 PM on May 18 [1 favorite +] [!]">

And if it's Drano or some kind of industrial solvent, you've just poisoned your experienced friend.
posted by proj at 12:27 PM on May 18, 2010 [10 favorites]


What kind of baggie is it? A twist-tied plastic bag? A tiny ziploc-looking thing?
posted by Greg Nog at 12:28 PM on May 18, 2010


According to this page you can try tasting a very small amount. If it tastes bitter and causes your tongue to feel numb, it's probably cocaine. Obviously, don't ingest a large enough amount to put yourself at risk of poisoning. A tiny, tiny sample should do the trick.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:29 PM on May 18, 2010


taste a tiny bit.
posted by special-k at 12:29 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Please do not taste the mysterious white powder you found in a baggie in the parking lot.
posted by juliplease at 12:35 PM on May 18, 2010 [60 favorites]


Do not go tasting random powders you find on the street. That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.
posted by nestor_makhno at 12:36 PM on May 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Once it's identified as a drug it'll be turned over to the police

This is backwards.
posted by haltingproblemsolved at 12:37 PM on May 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


If you're a school official, I'm guessing that the cops are going to trust your judgment / alibi. If you aren't testing it to possibly deal out some punishment, flush it and your curiosity simultaneously.
posted by tmcw at 12:37 PM on May 18, 2010


but administration doesn't want a ruckus if it's a senior prank.

That's among the worst things I've ever heard. My first thought was to throw it away and forget about it, but now I think you should contact the police just to piss off the administration. I know it's what I would have wanted done when I was in high school.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:38 PM on May 18, 2010


Taking a tiny bitty taste is very unlikely to hurt anyone, for the cocaine test you can put a little on the inside of your lip as well, it will be a bit numb if positive.
posted by stormygrey at 12:38 PM on May 18, 2010


Yes, this administration policy is bogus. Also, the people recommending that you taste it or snort it are reckless and should be ashamed.
posted by proj at 12:39 PM on May 18, 2010


What haltingproblemsolved said. Give it to the cops or the school security people. If it's nothing and turns out to be a senior prank then there's no harm done to anyone and everyone in the school can shake their heads and say "dumb kids".

If its some kind of dope then it's off the street and the cops are probably never going to be able to trace it back to its owner, so that's the end of it that way as well.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 12:40 PM on May 18, 2010


And that's not a commentary on drugs, more a commentary on people who think "it'll be fine" to taste some white powder you found in a bag in a parking lot of a high school.
posted by proj at 12:40 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Seriously people? I know you see the taste test on TV, but it is not at all what happens in real life. If it is some random chemical you could get a serious burn on the inside of your lip. You are a school employee. You have something that appears to be an illegal substance. Call the police.
posted by nestor_makhno at 12:42 PM on May 18, 2010


and, for all the people saying taste it.... Seriously?? Is that what you do? Find stuff on the street and randomly stick it in your mouth?
posted by 543DoublePlay at 12:43 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's a very simple way of identifying cocaine using the Scott test. Of course police departments have these in forensic test kits. They cost next to nothing. It'd be far easier to call them up and explain the situation than trying to cobble together the components for a Scott test on your own.

Is it a big bag of white powder? Like more than a few grams? If it is more than a small amount I really doubt it would be cocaine.
posted by geoff. at 12:44 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


For fuck's sake just throw it out or hand it in to the front office.
posted by bondcliff at 12:51 PM on May 18, 2010


Just throw it away. If you want drugs, real drugs are easy enough to find. It you don't want drugs, what the hell do you want with this stuff anyway?
posted by Afroblanco at 12:54 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Wow, you must not live in DC. They would have cordoned off a 5-block area and sent in the hazmat team.

(Glad you didn't taste it!)
posted by JoanArkham at 1:12 PM on May 18, 2010


Okay, sorry for suggesting you taste it, that was kinda dumb. I found a few informative web sites that suggested that method of identifying cocaine, but I suspect they're intended to be used in more controlled circumstances (i.e., not with any old bag of white stuff you found in a parking lot).
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:19 PM on May 18, 2010


It's too late, but the correct method would have been to divide it up into two baggies 70-30 and turning in the 30 to the cops and asking for identification 'for school purposes'.

After the identification comes back, THEN you decide what to do with the other 70%.
posted by unixrat at 1:25 PM on May 18, 2010 [4 favorites]


I guess this is a sidenote, but why in the world does the school care enough to identify it anyway? Do they have any reason to think they could trace it to a person? Or are schools just weird like that?
posted by Afroblanco at 1:26 PM on May 18, 2010


[Note from the asker]
The front office has it. That's that.
posted by cortex at 1:38 PM on May 18, 2010


For those reading after the fact, if you find an unknown substance that you think could be dangerous please do not flush it down the toilet as some have suggested. It doesn't magically disappear when it goes down the drain; it flows (eventually) back to a river of lake. Many chemicals and/or drugs are not detectable or treatable in wastewater processes and can harm fish and wildlife.
posted by AgentRocket at 1:49 PM on May 18, 2010 [8 favorites]


The right thing to do is call 911/999 or the Fire Department. They handle this sort of thing all the time.
posted by bonehead at 2:23 PM on May 18, 2010


...and don't move the bag either. Block the area off, let them pick it up. Someone will be there shortly in most municipal areas.
posted by bonehead at 2:25 PM on May 18, 2010


Testing it via bioassay is not as stupid as it sounds. How did this object come to exist, and why did someone leave it where it is? Drug baggies are pretty damn obvious. What kind of white powder does someone put in a small unmarked bag? Why does someone put a small amount of a white powder in an unmarked bag, then lose or abandon it? What kind of idiot would waste time obtaining some kind of toxic substance, camouflaging it as a drug baggie, and leaving it around in hopes that some unknown stranger might happen to discover it and sample it?

Further, perhaps your hypothetical drug-experienced friend is not an idiot, either. Perhaps they will look at this powder before sampling it, and see if the crystals have a familiar shape and color; perhaps they will also smell it, to see if it has the characteristic scent of any of the drugs they are familiar with; and perhaps only then, if they are already pretty sure they recognize it, will they actually taste one or two milligrams of the powder.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:37 PM on May 18, 2010


Could be talcum powder. Could be cocaine. Could be anthrax. Call the police.
posted by bgrebs at 2:42 PM on May 18, 2010


Hmmm, from the previous responses, it appears the question has been edited. Based on its current form:

Found a baggie of white powder, so how do I identify it?
I don't want to buy any of these testing kits yet, so is there any quick way to figure out what it is using chemicals that would normally be found in a science teacher's classroom?


I suggest asking the science teacher to identify it. It could be anything, anything. If they need a primer on identifying an unknown substance give them this link and then consider hiring a new science teacher.
posted by jardinier at 3:06 PM on May 18, 2010


Mars Saxman writes "Find an experienced friend and have them snort a pinch?"

Please don't expose humans to random chemicals. And flushing it is a bad idea too as it could be anything including hydrocal, plaster of paris or alginate which will clog your pipes, an acid or base which will corrode them away, or something violently exothermic which could melt the pipes or cause an explosion.
posted by Mitheral at 3:39 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I suggest asking the science teacher to identify it. It could be anything, anything.

This is why you call emergency services or the fire department. Pretty much every fire service in the developed world now has a hazardous materials unit. They have specialized equipment and protocols which allow them to screen for almost all threats and toxins. They may not be able to identify what it is, but they will be able to tell you what it isn't.

White powder threats are unfortunately very common now, literally an everyday occurrence in most major cities. Most of the time, it's a false alarm, but a few times a year (month), it isn't. You don't need to make a big deal out of it, just keep people away from the bag and call 911. Most situations will be handled fairly quickly.
posted by bonehead at 3:52 PM on May 18, 2010


Snort it? Taste it? Jesus Christ, people. Call the police and turn it in. Don't just throw it out, call the police. On the remote chance that it does turn out to be something hurtful, you'll want to know so you can seek precautionary medical attention if necessary, and the cops will be better prepared if/when more of it shows up. You are not going to get arrested or in trouble for turning in a suspicious substance (unless perhaps you walk in absolutely reeking of weed and try to turn in a baggie you "found"). Seriously. Call the cops. (This is coming from a guy who hates cops and generally tries to avoid them when at all possible.)
posted by xedrik at 4:33 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


stormygrey: "Taking a tiny bitty taste is very unlikely to hurt anyone, for the cocaine test you can put a little on the inside of your lip as well, it will be a bit numb if positive."

Are you crazy? There are dozens of popular drugs that are dangerous if not deadly in single digit milligram amounts. That's ignoring the fact it could be a dangerous chemical or (vanishingly unlikely but still a possibility) anthrax or similar.

Assuming it's a drug, reagent test kits will not help you identify the substance with any degree of certainty.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:45 PM on May 18, 2010


"What kind of idiot would waste time obtaining some kind of toxic substance, camouflaging it as a drug baggie, and leaving it around in hopes that some unknown stranger might happen to discover it and sample it?"

I guess the answer to that is the same kind of person that puts razor blades in halloween candy.

It was (presumably) close to a school, so any kids that might have found it could well have tasted or snorted something that would do them a great deal of harm instead of the high they were expecting. There's plenty of very weird people out there.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 4:50 PM on May 18, 2010


If they need a primer on identifying an unknown substance give them this link and then consider hiring a new science teacher.

Because so many science teachers have access to a Mass Spec.....?! There is a reason that police have expensive laboratories to do this stuff.
posted by kjs4 at 5:34 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cocaine has a very fluffy texture, closer to flour than baking soda or salt. It also has a distinctive smell; methyl benzoate, which results from the reaction of cocaine with moisture in the air (technically cocaine itself has no smell). Methyl benzoate smells vaguely sweet and perfumy, a bit like paper currency, though I'm not sure whether this is coincidence or due to the nanogram quantities of cocaine found on all US bills.

Most other drugs are not as pure white as cocaine, and if they are, they only present as such in their pure and uncut form, which is not something you're ever likely to see unless you're a DEA agent, a chemist, or trusted member of a narcotics cartel.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:47 PM on May 18, 2010


I guess the answer to that is the same kind of person that puts razor blades in halloween candy.

Just wanted to point out, this has basically never actually happened. It's pretty much an urban legend.
posted by ErikaB at 5:56 PM on May 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


I think it's fair to say that money smells like cocaine, rather than the reverse, but maybe that's just a quibble.
posted by bonehead at 6:00 PM on May 18, 2010


It's in a baggie, so it's drugs. So you touch it to your tongue and if it numbs it it's coke, if not it's speed or a decoy. Then you enjoy the contents of the baggie (unless it's full of decoy) and look out for the students who could have dropped it, and start talking to them, and get to know them and their issues and address those.
posted by goo at 6:10 PM on May 18, 2010


I know this question was about powder, but anyway. Some people who sell rocks (and might toss a baggie on the ground from time to time) will occasionally smash up white candles with a hammer, then douse the tiny wax chunks with Anbesol, then sell it to, uh, people who don't dare come back for a refund.

Just because something numbs your lip doesn't mean it's coke.
posted by trondant at 10:29 PM on May 18, 2010


the people recommending that you taste it or snort it are reckless and should be ashamed

different people have different acceptable risk and curiosity settings.
I know people for who would hand this straight to the cops.
But I've also known a few cops who would take the baggie straight to bathroom and snort it.
posted by compound eye at 10:34 PM on May 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


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