Article at a Glance:
- Possessing any prescription drug that isn’t prescribed to the person caught with it is illegal for people of all ages
- Minors caught with illicit substances may be given a chance to adjust their behavior to avoid repeat offenses later in life
- State laws vary, but generally, the larger amount of a drug a minor is caught with the harsher penalties will be
- A previous criminal record is a large factor that courts use to determine penalties
As is the case for all adults, unlawful possession of drugs by a minor — an individual under the age of 18 — in the United States, is a criminal offense likely to result in financial and legal consequences. Minors caught illegally possessing drugs are typically subject to juvenile (minor) drug possession charges with a wide range of state-level penalties. Such penalties include juvenile drug counseling and conditions, probation, pre-trial diversion and juvenile detention.
The unlawful possession of drugs by a minor occurs when an individual below the age of 18 possesses, uses or distributes any controlled substance listed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) without a legal purpose.
Controlled substances include prescription medications and illicit narcotics, and are classified as Schedule I, II, III, IV or V controlled substances, depending upon their authorized medical uses, unique risks and propensity for addiction. Drugs most commonly possessed by minors and teens are illicit narcotics, such as marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy and LSD alongside prescription medications like Adderall, Ritalin, Vicodin and Xanax.
While minors typically undergo much different criminal justice proceedings (juvenile drug court) and are subject to lesser penalties compared to adult offenders, the severity of those penalties is similarly determined by:
- The drug’s federal schedule classification
- The amount of the drug in an individual’s possession
- Their relative criminal history.
Additionally, because each state handles juvenile drug courts differently, minors facing juvenile drug possession charges may be subject to different penalties for the same offense, depending upon the state in which they reside. However, despite the potential differences in juvenile drug court penalties, possession of controlled substances by minors remains universally illegal throughout the United States.
Legality of Minors and Possessing Drugs
Possession of any controlled substance, absent a legal purpose, is universally illegal throughout the United States, for adults and minors. There are specific substances that are uniquely illegal for minors to possess, such as alcohol, tobacco and marijuana (in states with recreational marijuana laws). Substances like alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, become legal to purchase as soon as a minor reaches a specific age. For tobacco, as soon as an individual turns 18 years old, they will be able to lawfully purchase the drug. For both alcohol and marijuana, individuals must be 21 years of age to make a purchase. Possession of any of these legal substances as a minor is considered unlawful possession of a controlled substance and will be prosecuted as such.
Minors who violate laws related to the possession of legal drugs, illicit narcotics or prescription drugs have committed a criminal offense and will face severe legal and financial repercussions.
Crimes Associated with Minors and Drug Possession
Criminal offenses related to the possession of drugs by minors are divided into two distinct categories: criminal offenses related to the unlawful possession of prescription drugs and the unlawful possession of illicit narcotics. For prescription drugs, any minor caught in possession of prescription medication without a valid prescription or in violation of the conditions of a prescription (amount prescribed, expiration date, etc.) has committed a criminal offense and is subject to arrest and prosecution in juvenile court.
For illicit narcotics, any minor caught in possession of a federally scheduled narcotic, regardless of circumstance, has committed a criminal offense and will be subject to criminal penalties and juvenile prosecution. Unlawful possession of illicit controlled substances by minors includes possession of alcohol and marijuana (in states with recreational marijuana laws). Regardless of classification, it is universally illegal for minors to use, possess, obtain, manufacture or distribute any illegal controlled substance.
Minor drug possession charges (for both prescription drugs and narcotics) are typically classified in the same fashion as those for adults yet are prosecuted and penalized differently.
For example, in the state of Florida, an individual caught in possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana, will be charged with First Degree Misdemeanor Possession of Cannabis (marijuana), regardless of whether they are an adult or a minor. Included within this charge is a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. For example, in California, minors caught in possession of illegal drugs are charged with delinquency, rather than the crime an adult would typically be charged with, and immediately entered into the juvenile court process.
The difference between drug possession charges for minors and adults (typically) manifests in the courts in which these individuals are prosecuted and the severity of the penalties they face. Minors, unlike adults, are more often prosecuted in juvenile drug courts, which emphasize providing specialized treatment services to juvenile drug offenders rather than harsh punishment. Eligibility for drug court programs is primarily determined by the offense type, an individual’s criminal history and relevant substance abuse history. In most instances, non-violent, first-time offenders will be eligible for drug court participation and be subject to limited penalties for minor drug possession charges, such as court-ordered rehabilitation, drug counseling and pre-trial diversion.
In extreme circumstances where a minor is charged with serious felony charges or is recognized as a habitual offender, their case may be referred for prosecution as an adult. In these instances, minors will be subject to the same penalties as adult offenders. The severity of penalties that a minor prosecuted as an adult faces is similarly determined by the amount of the substance in their possession, their relevant criminal history and the nature of their possession. Generally speaking, minors convicted of misdemeanor offenses, yet prosecuted as adults, are likely to face small court fines, probation and drug conditions, short terms of imprisonment and court-ordered drug treatment, while felony convictions are more likely to result in extended periods of incarceration (up to 10 years) and excessive fines (up to $300,000).
Minors and Amount of Drugs Possessed
For minors, no quantity of controlled substance possession is considered legal. However, the amount of the substance within a minor’s possession when caught will likely have a determinative effect on their eligibility for juvenile drug court, alternative sentencing and the severity of those sentences.
Unlike adult offenses, where the exact amount of a substance possessed may explicitly determine the length of incarceration and court fines, possession amount in juvenile cases typically impacts a minor’s drug court outcomes by affecting their eligibility and the severity of their alternative sentencing. For example, minors charged with felony offenses (stemming from large amounts of controlled substance possession) are much more likely to be assigned to house arrest, electronic monitoring, supervised probation and short periods of juvenile detention than those charged with misdemeanor offenses (from minimal amounts of controlled substance possession).
Juvenile drug court penalties and sentencing guidelines vary significantly by state. It is important to consult with a qualified attorney regarding your state’s specific laws related to drug possession as a minor.
Minors and Previous Criminal History
A minor’s previous criminal history is likely to have a significant effect on their juvenile drug court outcomes, as repeat offenders are subject to much steeper penalties and run the risk of losing eligibility. Minors who are no longer considered eligible for juvenile drug court run the risk of being prosecuted as adults.
Referrals to drug court programs are entirely dependent upon the recommendation of Juvenile Services Departments and State Attorney’s Offices in a minor’s respective state. Repeat offenders are unlikely to receive a juvenile drug court referral and will likely face the same penalties as adults for drug possession charges. In these cases, minors will no longer be eligible for alternative sentencing options and face the possibility of non-juvenile incarceration in county jail or prison.
Eligibility for juvenile drug court and the relative importance of a minor’s criminal history are unique to each state. As a result, it is important to consult with an attorney regarding a state’s specific guidelines for drug court eligibility and drug possession laws.
Minors and Court Appointed Rehab
Most minors charged with unlawful possession of drugs find themselves in juvenile drug courts. Because juvenile drug courts place a significant focus on rehabilitation and treatment, it is likely that minors charged with criminal offenses related to drug use and possession will find themselves enrolled in a court-appointed rehabilitation program.
Drug treatment courts that mandate rehabilitation programs are considered by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals to be the, “…single most successful intervention in our nation’s history for leading people living with substance use and mental health disorders out of the justice system and into lives of recovery and stability.”
Minors Getting Caught High on Drugs
Most common among all of the potential alternative sentencing options associated with juvenile drug courts is juvenile probation. Included within juvenile probation are mandatory rehabilitation programs, drug treatment and monitoring conditions that require individuals to enroll in random drug test programs.
If a minor is caught using drugs while on probation, the minor will be charged with a Violation of Probation (VOP) and see their probation revoked, the imposition of a harsher juvenile drug court sentence, run the risk of being kicked out of juvenile drug court or potentially be incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility.
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Drug Enforcement Administration. “Controlled Substance Schedules.” Accessed June 24, 2019.
HG.org. “Juvenile Drug Possession Charges Can Ruin Your Child’s Future.” Accessed June 24, 2019.
The Ansara Law Firm. “Juvenile Misdemeanor Violations of Drug Laws.” Accessed June 24, 2019.
McElfresh Law. “Juvenile Drug Offenses.” Accessed June 24, 2019.
National Institute of Justice. “Juvenile Drug Courts.” Accessed June 24, 2019.
National Association of Drug Court Professionals. “Treatment Courts Work.” Accessed June 24, 2019.
Nolo. “Juvenile Court Sentencing Options.” Accessed June 24, 2019.
US Drug Test Centers.“Probation Drug Testing.” Accessed June 24, 2019.