Codeine is legal when prescribed by a doctor, dispensed by a pharmacy and taken as prescribed. Different formulations carry different legal restrictions.

Codeine is classified as an opioid or a narcotic. Opioids are contributing to addictions, overdoses and deaths throughout the country, and a lot of emphasis is being placed on the importance of curbing opioid abuse.

Many opioids are legally available with a prescription from your doctor, while others, like heroin, are illegal substances. This overview answers the question, “Is codeine illegal?” and covers what formulations of codeine are legal for medical use.

What Is Codeine?

Codeine is an opioid given to relieve pain ranging from mild to moderate and sometimes to reduce cough. It’s similar to morphine, and when someone takes it, it converts back to morphine in the body. Once it reaches that point, the morphine binds to opioid receptors in the brain, changing how the person senses pain.

Along with being a pain reliever, codeine can also cause drowsiness, relaxation and even euphoria. It’s less potent than a lot of other opioids that are commonly abused but still has the potential for abuse and addiction, primarily because it can cause users to feel high.

If you follow your doctor’s dosage instructions when using codeine, you’re less likely to become addicted or physically dependent, but it’s still possible.

Codeine is classified as a legal narcotic, and it’s a Schedule II drug in formulations where it’s by itself. A Schedule II drug is a classification outlined by the Controlled Substances Act, which divides drugs into groups based on how likely they are to be abused and how harmful they can be. According to the government’s classification system, schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse and can lead to psychological addiction or physical dependence. Along with codeine, other Schedule II drugs include hydromorphone, oxycodone and morphine.

Schedule I drugs, in contrast, don’t have currently accepted medical uses in the U.S. They aren’t viewed as safe, and they have a high potential for abuse. Heroin is a Schedule I drug in the U.S, and it’s illegal to have or produce.

Some forms of codeine are classified as Schedule III controlled substances, meaning they have a lower risk of dependence, physically or psychologically. These forms include low amounts of codeine mixed with other, non-addictive medications. Schedule III drugs include certain formulations of hydrocodone and buprenorphine and products that don’t have any more than 90 milligrams of codeine in a dose, such as Tylenol with codeine.

Some formulations of codeine can even be Schedule V, which means they have a low potential for abuse in general. For example, any cough medicine with no more than 2000 mg of codeine per 1000 milliliters or per 100 grams is considered Schedule V. This can include things like Robitussin AC.

Codeine is legal when prescribed by a doctor, dispensed by a pharmacy, and taken as prescribed. It can also be legally purchased over the counter in some cough medications. Its classification as a controlled substance ranges from Schedule II to Schedule V, based on factors such as how much codeine is contained in a combination drug formulation.

Overall, codeine is legal within certain guidelines, but you still need a prescription for most versions of it, and you should always follow your physician’s instructions when taking it.

If you or a loved one has been misusing codeine and worry you may have a codeine addiction, help is available. The Recovery Village has locations across the country and can help you start an opioid-free life. Contact us today to discuss treatment options that may suit your needs.

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Benjamin Caleb Williams, RN
Benjamin Caleb Williams is a board-certified Emergency Nurse with several years of clinical experience, including supervisory roles within the ICU and ER settings. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.