The University of Arizona

Illicit Drug Screening, Brief Intervention, and Treatment Placement
Screening Methods:
Observation/General Indicators

One approach to screening is to observe whether there are physical, psychological, behavioral, or social indicators that suggest the misuse of drugs.  For example, in the case of methamphetamine, one could look for characteristics such as:[1-4]

Physical Indicators

  • Damaged and discolored teeth
  • Skin lesions due to users picking at “meth bugs”
  • Needle marks from injections
  • Chemical burns acquired while cooking MA
  • Tachycardia (rapid heartbeat)
  • Tachypnea (rapid respiration)
  • Tremor
  • Hypertension
  • Dry mouth
  • Mydriasis (excessive pupil dilation)
  • Blurry vision

Psychological and Behavioral Indicators

  • Disheveled appearance
  • Impairments in working memory, attention, and executive function
  • Impaired judgment
  • Sense of euphoria
  • Increase in energy, wakefulness, attention, self-confidence, and sexuality
  • Irritability
  • Impulsivity
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Anorexia
  • Suspiciousness
  • Violent behavior
  • Psychosis

Social Indicators

  • Absenteeism from or other trouble at work or school
  • Arrest
  • Estrangement from friends
  • Familial problems
  • Communicable diseases

The reliability of simple observation is dependent in part on the experience and expertise of the observer as well as on the extent to which a client actually manifests various characteristics.  Also, reliability can be limited by the possibility that indicators that may seem to be associated with drug misuse could be due to other factors.  As such, while observation can be helpful, it is often best used in conjunction with additional screening procedures. 



  • (1) Wolkoff DA. Methamphetamine abuse: an overview for health care professionals. Hawaii Medical Journal 1997 Feb;56(2):34-6.
  • (2) Lineberry TW. Methamphetamine Abuse: A Perfect Storm of Complications. Mayo Clinic Proceedings 2006 Jan 1;81(1):77-84.
  • (3) Barr AM, Panenka WJ, MacEwan GW, Thornton AE, Lang DJ, Honer WG, et al. The need for speed: an update on methamphetamine addiction. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience 2006 Mar 6;31(5):301-13.
  • (4) NIDA. Methamphetamine: Abuse and Addiction. Rockville, MD; 2006 Sep.