Drug Schedules: Controlled Substances & U.S. Drug Laws
U.S. law organizes drugs into different schedules based on several criteria, such as a substance’s level of addictive properties. Legal consequences of using or selling illegal drugs are based upon the schedule of those drugs.
8 min read
What Is a Controlled Substance?
The U.S. government regulates the creation, possession, distribution and use of certain substances, both legal and illicit. These drugs are called controlled substances, and they range from hard street drugs such as heroin to prescription medications that must be obtained through your pharmacist. However, all controlled substances have one thing in common: they are dangerous because they can be habit-forming.
In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act, which listed the substances that would thereafter be considered controlled. This piece of legislation outlined the different “levels of danger” of each of those substances, and grouped them into five distinct schedules. The statute also established significant legal consequences for making, distributing, or diverting any of those controlled substances outside of the new legal structure.
Some controlled substances are outright illegal. The others are legal, but only appropriate for use with a legitimate prescription from a U.S. medical doctor. A rule of thumb is that it is always illegal to possess any controlled substance without a prescription.
Penalties for possessing or distributing controlled substances are scaled in severity, based upon the schedules and amounts of drugs involved in a given situation. Possession charges are most often dealt with on a state level, but distribution is handled in a federal court of law. Possession consequences vary from state to state. If your teen is caught in possession of a controlled substance, ask their legal counsel about your state’s laws.
Controlled substances are categorized according to the impact they have upon users, the potential for drug abuse, the potential for dependency, and their level of medicinal benefit. They are classified on a scale of 1–5, with Schedule I substances being the most dangerous, and Schedule V being the least dangerous.
What Is a Schedule I Drug?
Schedule I (or Schedule 1) substances possess no known medicinal benefits, and have a very high potential for addiction. Commonly known as “street drugs,” these are the least safe of all controlled substances.
Schedule I drug possession charges vary based on state. Individual first-time offenders caught selling some Schedule I drugs can face 5–40 years in prison, and up to $2 million in fines. Penalties are based on the amount of the substance that is discovered, and which Schedule I drug it is. (Note that marijuana is considered a Schedule I drug, but federal penalties for selling this drug sometimes deviate from the aforementioned ones.)
Here is a list of Schedule I drugs that are most frequently abused by American teens today:
What Is a Schedule II Drug?
Schedule II (or Schedule 2) substances possess some known medicinal benefits, and also high potential for dependency and abuse. While many Schedule II drugs are sold on the streets, some are actually prescribed by doctors when a patient is in dire need of that drug’s benefit. For example, intense painkillers — while fairly addictive, if not used under the supervision of a doctor — are often medically useful when a patient is in severe physical pain or undergoing palliative care.
Schedule II drug possession charges vary based on state. Most times, individual first-time offenders caught selling Schedule II drugs can face a maximum of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. Penalties are based on the amount of the substance that is discovered, and which substance it is.
Here is a list of Schedule II drugs that are most frequently abused by American teens today:
What Is a Schedule III Drug?
Schedule III (or Schedule 3) substances possess some medicinal benefits, and possess a moderate potential for dependency. These drugs are often prescribed to people who suffer from a wide range of medical conditions, such as arthritis and anemia.
Schedule III drug possession charges vary based on state. On most occasions, individual first-time offenders caught selling Schedule III drugs can face up to 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. Penalties are not based on the amount of the substance that is discovered, but upon any sale of a Schedule III drug.
Here is a list of Schedule III drugs that are most frequently abused by American teens today:
- Anabolic Steroids
- Products with less than 90 mg of codeine per dose
What Is a Schedule IV Drug?
Schedule IV (or Schedule 4) substances possess medicinal benefits, have limited potential for abuse and moderate potential for dependency. These medications are often prescribed to people who suffer from anxiety.
Schedule IV drug possession charges vary based on state. In most cases, individual first-time offenders caught selling Schedule IV drugs face a maximum of five years in prison, and up to $250,000 in fines.
Here is a list of Schedule IV drugs that are most frequently abused by American teens today:
What Is a Schedule V Drug?
Schedule V (or Schedule 5) substances exist because they offer significant medicinal benefits. They do not have much potential for addiction or abuse and are considered relatively safe. These medications are often used when a person is suffering from a cold bad enough to have prompted a visit to the doctor. Less powerful cough medicines are available over the counter, but ones that contain certain amounts of codeine are controlled as Schedule V drugs.
Schedule V drug possession charges vary based on state. In most cases, individual first-time offenders caught selling Schedule V drugs face no more than one year in prison and no more than $100,000 in fines.
Here is a list of Schedule V drugs that are most frequently abused by American teens today:
- Cough medicines with less than 200 mg of codeine per dose
- Robitussin AC
Are Alcohol and Tobacco Controlled Substances?
Neither alcohol nor tobacco is legally listed as a controlled substance. Over the years, despite the staggering risks associated with teen alcohol abuse and teen smoking, lobbying to get alcohol and tobacco listed as controlled substances has been largely ineffective. Of course, both substances are subject to government regulation, but laws vary from state to state. For example, grocery stores in Virginia carry beer and wine selections, but if you travel to Pennsylvania, you need to go to a specialty store for alcohol of any kind.
How Do People Get Controlled Substances?
Schedule I drugs are most frequently acquired through illicit means on the street. There are exceptions to this, however. For example, legalization of marijuana in some states has enabled residents of those states to acquire this Schedule I drug within the realm of local legality.
Schedule II–V drugs all have some medicinal use, so many people acquire them legally through doctors. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has even opted to allow doctors to e-prescribe controlled substances.
Despite government efforts to block the illicit acquisition of controlled substances, teens are still able to illicitly get their hands on commonly abused controlled substances from friends and drug dealers. For example, Schedule II drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall (referred to as study drugs) are rampant on high school and college campuses. These pills are often sold individually by students who have personal prescriptions.
History of Controlled Substance Law in the U.S.
Drugs did not always carry the legal weight that they do today. The U.S. only started regulating and classifying drugs in the late 19th century.
Timeline of Significant U.S. Drug Laws
- Late 1800s – Due to opiate abuse, local governments begin to outlaw opium.
- 1906 – The Pure Food and Drug Act requires doctors to accurately label the products they prescribe.
- 1914 – The U.S. passes its first federal drug policy in the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, which taxed and thus limited the making and distribution of heroin, cocaine, marijuana and morphine.
- 1922 – The Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act bans the importation of cocaine.
- 1924 – The Heroin Act outlaws the manufacture of heroin.
- 1937 – The Marihuana Tax Act effectively eradicates the legal marijuana market by imposing a significant tax upon anyone who wishes to create or distribute the drug. In order to avoid the extra cost, Americans simply choose to create and purchase the drug in secret.
- 1951 – The Boggs Act puts steep penalties on Americans who are found either using or selling drugs. The new laws in this act dictate mandatory minimum sentencing, such as specific jail times for certain drugs.
- 1956 – The Narcotics Control Act is adopted, which slaps tremendous disciplines upon narcotics users and distributors. Minimum prison sentences are increased, and the death penalty can be performed upon a criminal who sells heroin to a minor.
- 1966 – Hippie counterculture gives rise to widespread marijuana use, and soldiers return from Vietnam with opiate habits. American society is addled with drug abuse. In stark contrast to the previous decade’s legislation, the Narcotics Addict Rehabilitation Act identifies substance addiction as a mental illness rather than a choice.
- 1970 – Congress passes the Controlled Substances Act, which contains a full controlled substance list and also dictates the penalties for making, possessing, distributing or using the substances.
Does My Teen Need Help?
If you notice signs that your child is abusing any schedule of drug or using alcohol, take action immediately. Make an appointment right away to talk to a local substance abuse professional, who can help you determine any next steps you should take. If you’d rather not speak to someone face-to-face, you can call or email with one of our advisors at TheRecoveryVillage.com, who can answer any questions you may have, or simply listen to you. We know how much venting can help sometimes. Best of all, it’s free and confidential to get in touch with us.
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