Article at a Glance:
Keep the following key points in mind when considering what happens when a person is caught with benzodiazepines:
- The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies benzos as a Schedule IV controlled substance
- Specific laws and penalties vary by states, but generally, the more benzodiazepines a person is caught with the harsher their penalties will be
- The best way to avoid illegal trouble is to safely dispose of unused prescriptions, never take extra from friends or family, keep the medication in its original container and never try to sell a prescription
- Benzos have a short half-life but their metabolites can be detected for up to 90 days following consumption
Table of Contents
The Risks & Consequences
Unlawful possession of benzodiazepines — possession without a prescription from a physician, in an amount in excess of an individual’s prescribed amount, or possession of an expired prescription — is a serious criminal offense likely to result in arrest, criminal prosecution, a criminal record (if found guilty), court-ordered drug monitoring and treatment, incarceration and steep financial penalties.
Benzodiazepines often referred to as “benzos,” are a classification of highly psychoactive anti-anxiety and anti-insomnia medications, most notable for their calming effects on the central nervous system. Benzodiazepines are available in a wide variety of forms and brands, including Xanax (Alprazolam), Valium (Diazepam) and Klonopin (Clonazepam).
Benzodiazepine prescriptions are used to treat a wide range of medical conditions and typically vary in form and concentration depending upon their designated use. The widespread legal availability and popularity of benzodiazepines, like Xanax, have led them to become one of the most popular illicitly consumed prescription drugs in the United States. As a result of their limited medical applications, the potential for abuse and dependence, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies benzodiazepines as Schedule IV drugs under the Controlled Substances Act.
Criminal penalties related to the unlawful use, possession and distribution of prescription benzodiazepines vary significantly from state to state and are usually dependent upon the amount of the substance in an individual’s possession, as well as their respective criminal history. Regardless of the severity of penalties, possession of Schedule IV substances without a prescription is universally illegal in every state of the United States.
Crimes Associated with Benzodiazepines
Benzodiazepines are permitted to be possessed legally, so long as they are prescribed by a licensed physician and possessed in accordance with state and federal laws. Because of their status as Schedule IV controlled substances, there exists a range of criminal offenses related to the use, possession, and distribution of prescription benzodiazepines without a valid prescription.
Individuals struggling with benzodiazepine addiction and substance use disorders are unlikely to continually attain benzodiazepines legally and, as a result, purchase them on the black market or acquire them by prescription fraud. These methods of acquisition carry their own unique criminal penalties.
Criminal offenses related to the unlawful possession of prescription benzodiazepines are typically prosecuted at the state level, under either a misdemeanor or felony classification (depending upon the amount of the substance in an individual’s possession).
Possession of small quantities of benzodiazepines is subject to misdemeanor prosecution, whereas possession of larger amounts, distribution and prescription fraud are likely to result in felony charges. The severity of state-level penalties is generally determined by the amount of the substance in an individual’s possession at the time they are caught, how the substance was acquired, the intent of possession and the individual’s relative criminal history. Misdemeanor offers commonly result in sentences including probation, small court fines and periods of incarceration (in county jail). Felony offenders generally face more severe penalties including incarceration periods of up to 10 years in state prison.
In addition to legal exposure at the state level, certain offenses, like the trafficking and manufacturing of benzodiazepines, are prosecuted at the federal level under the Federal Controlled Substances Act. Federal sentencing guidelines for trafficking in Schedule IV controlled substances (like benzodiazepines) recommend financial penalties between $250,000 and $1 million and a prison sentence of up to 5 years, for first-time offenders. Those with prior federal drug trafficking convictions (or other serious offenses) are subject to enhanced penalties of between $500,000 to $2 million in fines and up to 10 years in federal prison.
Caught Without My Benzodiazepine Prescription
To lawfully possess prescription benzodiazepines, an individual must have a valid prescription from a licensed physician, possess the substance in an amount consistent with the prescription allotment and ensure their prescription has not expired. There are no exceptions to these rules. Possession of a benzodiazepine prescription in violation of any of the aforementioned conditions is a criminal offense likely to result in misdemeanor or felony prosecution and significant legal and financial consequences.
An individual caught with their own lawfully prescribed benzodiazepines without proof of a valid prescription may also be subject to arrest depending upon the state in which they reside.
Benzodiazepine Prescription in a Bottle
When a doctor prescribes a patient benzodiazepines, the prescription is filled and provided to the patient in a pharmacy bottle with an attached medication label featuring the patient’s identification information (name, birth date, and address), the prescribing doctor’s identification information, the pharmacy name and address, the prescription’s name, concentration, form, dosage instructions, expiration date and quantity prescribed.
A benzodiazepine prescription is considered to be legally possessed so long as the prescription is maintained within its original container (except for during use), the quantity within the container matches that or is less than the quantity listed on the medication label, and the prescription has yet to expire.
Prescription Outside the Bottle
Proper storage and possession of prescription benzodiazepines is especially important in states where the possession of one’s prescription medication outside of its original container is considered a criminal offense. In those states, a prescription must be stored in the original container to be considered lawful possession. These laws include certain common-sense exceptions, such as the use and necessary repackaging of medications in other approved medical containers. However, the laws specifically forbid the storage of prescriptions in purses, pockets, bags or any other non-approved storage device.
While these laws are primarily intended to crack down upon unlawful possession of prescription medication without valid prescriptions, individuals caught with their improperly stored prescription medications will face arrest and criminal prosecution, nonetheless.
Because these laws vary by state and have their distinct guidelines and exceptions related to the proper storage of prescription medication, it is important to consult with your physician or a knowledgeable attorney before repackaging any prescription medication.
Caught and Not My Benzodiazepine Prescription
Schedule IV controlled substance possession in the United States without a prescription is illegal. Individuals in possession of someone else’s benzodiazepine prescription, or a prescription attained through prescription fraud, can face arrest, criminal prosecution, and steep financial penalties.
The severity of penalties associated with benzodiazepine possession charges varies significantly by state. Anyone with concerns regarding their state’s respective laws and penalties should consult a legal professional or their prescribing physician.
Getting Caught High on Benzodiazepines
In addition to the unlawful possession, distribution, and trafficking of prescription benzodiazepines, there exists a series of criminal offenses related to the illegal use of benzodiazepines without a prescription. These offenses are prosecuted much less often because of their difficulty to prove, however, still carry significant penalties.
Individuals under court-ordered drug monitoring conditions or on probation are subject to additional legal penalties if caught under the influence of controlled substances or if their use is detected in random drug test programs. These penalties are likely to far exceed those of the original offense which placed them under those conditions in the first place.
Prescription benzodiazepines, in their various forms, are detectable in urine, blood, and hair follicle tests, for a significant period following use. Because of their relatively short elimination half-lives of (a maximum of) 24 hours, prescription benzodiazepines are typically out of a user’s system a few days following use. However, despite their short half-lives, prescription benzodiazepines remain detectable in urine tests for an average of three to six weeks, in blood tests for up to three days and hair follicle tests for up to 90 days following use.
Both the illegal use and use that violates the conditions of probation, parole or drug treatment programs are likely to result in severe legal and financial consequences.
Department of Justice. “Controlled Substance Schedules.” Accessed May 15, 2019. Schneider Freiberger Law. “Understanding Xanax Possession Charges in New Jersey.” Accessed May 15, 2019. Yeh, Brian T. “Drug Offenses: Maximum Fines and Terms of Imprisonment for Violation of the Federal Controlled Substances Act and Related Laws.” Congressional Research Service, January 20, 2015. Accessed May 15, 2019. RxOutreach. “Understanding Prescription Medication Labels.” Accessed May 16, 2019. US Drug Test Centers. “Probation Drug Testing.” Accessed May 16, 2019.
Department of Justice. “Controlled Substance Schedules.” Accessed May 15, 2019.
Schneider Freiberger Law. “Understanding Xanax Possession Charges in New Jersey.” Accessed May 15, 2019.
Yeh, Brian T. “Drug Offenses: Maximum Fines and Terms of Imprisonment for Violation of the Federal Controlled Substances Act and Related Laws.” Congressional Research Service, January 20, 2015. Accessed May 15, 2019.
RxOutreach. “Understanding Prescription Medication Labels.” Accessed May 16, 2019.
US Drug Test Centers. “Probation Drug Testing.” Accessed May 16, 2019.