At some point or another, anyone who has taken a flight has probably wondered if airport scanners can detect drugs?

While airports have scanners that don’t outright detect drugs, they make it nearly impossible for security personnel to not notice or spot drugs being carried by passengers.

If the scanners detect any suspicious items, security personnel investigate to confirm whether any illegal items are present.

If drugs are found, law enforcement may then get involved.

How Airport Scanners Detect Drugs

Airports use scanners to check luggage and passengers.

While airport scanners cannot outright detect a specific drug, they show security personnel the content of people’s luggage and any items that may be carried on person.

Airports primarily use three types of scanners:

Millimeter-Wave Scanners

These scanners perform full-body scans.

These are the scanners you typically walk through when you’re in the airport.

Millimeter-wave scanners, which work by bouncing electromagnetic waves off you, construct 3-dimensional animated images of you that show everything you have on person.

Airport Full Body Scanner
This millimeter wave scanner is used for detecting objects concealed underneath a passenger’s clothing

If an individual has illegal items hidden in their shoes, pockets, or clothes, the scanner will show security personnel an animated image of it.

Backscatter X-ray Scanners

Backscatter X-ray scanners also perform full-body scans, and they used to be a lot more common several years ago than they are now.

Most airports have replaced their backscatter x-ray scanners with millimeter-wave ones because of privacy concerns, but some still have them.

Backscatter X-ray image
What a Backscatter X-ray sees

Backscatter X-ray scanners create chalk-like images of passengers that reveal if they’re carrying anything on them.

Backscatter X-ray scanners work by hitting you with harmless ionizing radiation that reveal if you have any solid items on you.

Baggage Scanners

Baggage scanners check the contents of luggage to ensure that no illegal items or substances are present inside.

Baggage scanners typically use X-ray technology that form detailed images of the luggage content.

It’s not possible to hide any items inside a bag from the baggage scanner because they are very thorough and emphasize the edges of all items in a bag.

Airport Scanner X-Ray Image Example
What the contents of luggage look like to an airport scanner

While again, baggage scanners don’t actually detect drugs, they make it very easy for security personnel to spot them since the shape and size of all items in the bag will be visible to them.

Detecting Drugs in Your Body, Clothing, and Luggage

A person who carries illegal drugs through an airport with them will have the drugs either inside their body, attached to their clothing, or stored in their luggage.

Security personnel are able to spot drugs if they are brought in any of these ways.

Inside Body

Full-body scanners are extremely effective in detecting if anyone is hiding narcotics in their body cavities.

Drugs hidden inside body cavities are easily spotted by security personnel because most full-body scanners alert security if foreign objects are detected on or inside someone’s body, especially if they’re large in size or have a distinctive shape.

It is virtually impossible for drugs stored inside body cavities to not be immediately spotted by security personnel.


Drugs stored inside special compartments or hidden pockets in clothes are also easily detected by security personnel.

Full-body scanners detect items even if they’re otherwise concealed. Security personnel will see the suspicious items highlighted on their scanners and investigate immediately.


It is near impossible for airport security personnel not to spot narcotic substances in luggage.

Even if the narcotic substances are hidden in several layers of containers, the scanners will detect them and alert security personnel.

Terahertz Scanner hidden object detection
A Terahertz Scanner showing a hidden object

As soon as airport security personnel see any suspicious object in luggage, they will check the bag to confirm whether it’s an illegal item or not.

TSA agents are trained to spot what weed looks like on an airport scanner, as well as other drugs.

What Happens If An Airport Scanner Finds Drugs

If an airport scanner detects a suspicious item on a person, in their clothes, or in their bags, security personnel will investigate it.

Typically, they will ask the individual to exit the queue they were in and direct them to a separate room where they will be searched.

If a suspicious item was detected in their luggage, the security personnel would simply open the luggage to confirm the contents of the bag. If foreign items are detected inside the body or clothing of a person, airport security personnel will check their body or clothes to confirm the item.

The search will continue until the security personnel is convinced no illegal items, including drugs, are present.

Again, security personnel don’t actively look for drugs; they just look for any suspicious items to confirm there aren’t any illegal items, including drugs.

The type of search they will perform depends on local regulations.

Usually, if they manage to find any illegal items, including narcotics, on someone’s person, clothing, or luggage, they will inform local law enforcement authorities.

Local law enforcement agencies will arrest the individual for possession and charge them with drug possession according to local laws.

Are Some Drugs Easier to Detect Than Others?

As mentioned, airport scanners don’t actively detect drugs at all, so it isn’t a matter of some drugs being easier to detect than others.

Airport scanners only detect suspicious items on a person’s body, clothing, and luggage.

Security personnel are also trained to identify different drugs, so when they see a suspicious bag containing a powdered or any other drug-like substance, they will check it out and probably know that it is a drug.

It also does not matter how the drugs are stored; the scanners will reveal their presence, regardless of how intricately they are hidden.

In conclusion, drugs cannot be detected by airport scanners.

Airport scanners detect suspicious objects, and security personnel investigate them.

If any drugs are found, local law enforcement is notified and further action may be taken.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).