If you are caught illegally possessing prescription drugs, you could face a series of legal consequences including arrest, jail time, a life-long criminal record and financial penalties.

Possession of prescription drugs, in any of their forms, brands, categories or concentrations, without a valid prescription or in excess of the prescribed amount, is a universally unlawful offense with severe legal and financial repercussions. Those caught illegally possessing prescription drugs are likely to face misdemeanor or felony charges carrying penalties of arrest, prosecution, imprisonment, a life-long criminal record, court-ordered drug treatment and monitoring conditions, driver’s license suspension and excessive court fines.

Prescription drugs, classified as any pharmaceutical medication that cannot be legally sold or obtained without a prescription from a licensed physician, encompass a wide variety of medication categories, including opioid painkillersstimulants, central nervous system (CNS) depressants, and antipsychotics. Prescription medication is lawfully and regularly prescribed to treat an ever-expanding range of medical conditions. However, despite their widely acknowledged medical applications, prescription medications are commonly abused within the United States.

The abuse of prescription opioid medication was recently labeled as an epidemic by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, with an estimated 11.4 million people currently misusing this category of prescription drugs. In addition to this public health emergency, depressants and stimulants are often abused, especially in young adult populations. Due to their dangerous potential for abuse, physical and psychological dependence, prescription drugs are classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as Schedule II, III, IV or V controlled substances, depending upon their unique risks and propensity for addiction.

The criminal charges and penalties related to the unlawful use, possession or distribution of prescription drugs are primarily dependent upon the drug’s federal schedule classification and state-level controlled substance statutes, which vary considerably state by state. The severity of the penalties associated with these charges is generally determined by the amount of the substance within an individual’s possession, the nature of their possession and their relative criminal history. While there are notable differences between controlled substance statutes, the illegality of prescription-controlled substance (prescription drug) possession is universal throughout the United States.

Article at a Glance:

  • Regardless of the type of prescription, there are laws in place that require people to be vigilant about how they manage their prescription
  • Being caught with prescription medication that doesn’t belong to you can result in legal consequences that can cost you millions and send you to jail for years
  • The more of a substance that you’re caught with, the heavier the legal penalties are
  • The best way to avoid fines and jail time is to keep your prescription in its original container until it needs to be used, never share your medication with anyone, never buy more of your medication from family or friends, and safely dispose of expired or excess medication

Crimes Associated With Prescription Drugs

Regardless of their widespread availability, because of their federal controlled substance classification, the possession of any prescription medication without a prescription or in violation of the conditions of a prescription is an unlawful offense with considerable legal and financial repercussions. Additionally, individuals with a prescription drug substance use disorder or dependence who are unable to obtain these drugs lawfully may turn to illegal acquisition methods such as prescription fraud or the black market — both of which include their unique legal consequences.

Criminal offenses associated with the unlawful use, acquisition, possession or distribution of prescription medication typically fall under state law and are subject to either a misdemeanor or felony prosecution. In most instances, misdemeanor charges are applied to small quantities of possession and disorderly person offenses, such as the illegal use of a prescription drug. Felony prosecution is typically reserved for repeat offenders, larger possession quantities, prescription fraud and distribution of prescription drugs. The type and severity of state-level penalties an individual caught with prescription drugs will be subject to is primarily determined by the federal classification (schedule) of the substance in an individual’s possession, the quantity of the substance possessed and the nature of possession.

While sentences are largely dependent upon state-specific statutes and drug schedules, generally speaking, those convicted of misdemeanor offenses can expect 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).

While most prescription drug offenses are prosecuted at the state level, certain offenses, such as trafficking, are subject to prosecution and charges at the federal level. For example, under the sentencing guidelines of the Federal Controlled Substances Act, trafficking prescription medication is a federal felony offense with mandatory minimum penalties of between $100,000 and $5 million in court fines, and a prison sentence of between 1 and 20 years. Those with a history of federal prescription drug trafficking offenses will be subject to penalties in excess of those for first-time offenders, including a maximum prison sentence of 30 years and a $10 million fine.

Caught With My Prescription Drugs Without Prescription

Prescription drug offenses related to the unlawful possession of controlled substances without a prescription are numerous and range widely from simple possession (a misdemeanor) to felony intent to distribute and trafficking. However, individuals with valid prescriptions for scheduled prescription drugs are also subject to legal exposure if they’re caught in possession of their prescription medication in a quantity, concentration or form inconsistent with their actual prescription.

For example, those prescribed Adderall in tablet form, who are caught in possession of extended-release capsules without a prescription, are considered to unlawfully possess that medication and are likely to be arrested and prosecuted. Additionally, those caught with an expired prescription or in possession of a valid prescription without a prescription label may face misdemeanor or felony charges for unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

As a result of the stringent regulations regarding controlled substance possession, whether prescription or otherwise, the only way to legally possess one’s own prescription medication is with proof of a valid prescription in a form consistent with the prescribed form, that has not expired and does not exceed the prescribed quantity.

Prescription Drugs Prescription in a Bottle

All prescription drugs, regardless of form, are filled by a pharmacy in a medication container and accompanied by a prescription medication label, outlining the patient’s identification information, the prescription name, dosage, concentration and amount, alongside the prescribing physician’s identification information, pharmacy name and prescription expiration date.

Prescription drug medication labels are the primary method of prescription verification and an essential aspect of lawful possession of one’s own prescription medication. As a result, it is very important that prescription drugs remain stored in their original container (with the medication label) at all times. Failure to properly store prescription medication may result in arrest and criminal prosecution.

Prescription Outside the Bottle

Proper storage of prescription medication is especially important in states with statutory guidelines and prohibitions related to possession of one’s own prescription drugs. For special circumstances, these laws include a series of exemptions related to the removal of prescription medication for “use” and “reasonable repackaging,” yet specifically prohibit storage in commonly used storage devices such as pockets, bags, toiletry kits or any non-medical storage device. In these states, violations of these laws constitute criminal offenses likely to result in arrest and criminal prosecution.

In most states, offenses related to improper storage of prescription medication are prosecuted under the same guidelines and penalty structure as illegal use and possession. For example, improper storage of prescriptions like XanaxPercocetCodeine or Ambien, in a container other than the one it was originally delivered in may qualify as a misdemeanor and result in jail time and financial penalties.

Because the guidelines, regulations, exemptions and statutory penalties associated with the storage of prescription medication vary significantly by state, individuals concerned about their state’s laws regarding proper storage of prescription drugs should consult with their physician or a knowledgeable attorney before any decision to remove prescription medication from its original container.

Caught and Not My Prescription Drugs Prescription

In all instances, a person caught in possession of a prescription that does not belong to them was obtained illicitly or through prescription fraud, has violated the law and will face the penalties associated with such offenses if caught. These penalties typically include arrest, prosecution, probation, court fines, incarceration, and life-long criminal history, depending upon the classification of the drug.

Individuals caught in possession of Schedule II prescription drugs are likely to face felony prosecution and penalties. The penalties associated with unlawful possession of prescription medication are likely to change significantly by state and the type of drug in an individual’s possession. As such, it is very important to consult with a qualified attorney regarding your state’s specific laws.

Getting Caught High on Prescription Pills

In addition to the various criminal penalties for unlawful possession, distribution, fraud, and trafficking of prescription drugs, illegal use of prescription pills also constitutes a significant criminal offense. The illegal use of prescription drugs is prosecuted in the same fashion as criminal use of a non-prescription controlled substance. Typically, these offenses do not result in any jail time but would leave convicted offenders with a criminal record.

The penalties associated with illegal use of prescription drugs are even more severe for individuals already on probation, drug treatment or monitoring conditions. Unlawful prescription drug use detected in random drug tests are likely to result in additional criminal prosecution and penalties far in excess of those associated with the original offense. The detectability of prescription drug use is largely dependent upon the specific type of drug and drug test being conducted.

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By – Bryan Hindin
Bryan Hindin is a law clerk with years of experience working in personal injury, criminal defense, and employment law firms. Read more
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Editor – Thomas Christiansen
With over a decade of content experience, Tom produces and edits research articles, news and blog posts produced for Advanced Recovery Systems. Read more

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic?” Accessed May 7, 2019.

Department of Justice. “Controlled Substance Schedules.” Accessed May 7, 2019.

Schneider Freiberger Law. “Prescription Drug Offenses.” Accessed May 8, 2019.

Yeh, Brian T. “Drug Offenses: Maximum Fines and Term[…]and Related Laws.” Congressional Research Service, January 20, 2015. Accessed May 8, 2019.

RxOutreach. “Understanding Prescription Medication Labels.” Accessed May 8, 2019.

US Drug Testing Centers .“Probation Drug Testing.” Accessed May 8, 2019.

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.