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

Article at a Glance:

Because getting caught with prescription sleeping pills outside of a prescription can result in severe legal repercussions, keep the following key points in mind:

  • Prescription sleeping pills should be stored in their original containers. Many states have laws that make it illegal to store sleeping pills anywhere but within their prescription containers.
  • Using someone else’s prescription pills is illegal, as is letting someone else use your sleeping pills
  • People caught with prescription sleeping pills without a prescription for them will face penalties that vary depending on the volume of pills in their possession. High amounts indicate the intent to distribute and can result in millions of dollars in fines and decades in jail.
  • To avoid legal trouble always use your prescription sleeping pills exactly as prescribed, do not attempt to get more through other people, do not share your prescription pills with anyone else and keep your prescriptions in their original containers.

Getting Caught With Sleeping Pills

Possession of prescription-strength sleeping pills, such as Ambien (Zolpidem), Dalmane (Flurazepam), and Lunesta (Eszopiclone), without a valid prescription or in an amount that exceeds an individual’s prescribed amount, is illegal. The penalties associated with these offenses often include arrest, misdemeanor or felony prosecution, a life-long criminal record, imprisonment, mandatory drug treatment and monitoring protocols, suspension of driver’s license and significant court fines.

Prescription sleeping pills are typically categorized as sedative-hypnotic drugs and benzodiazepines. Sleeping pills are commonly prescribed by physicians to treat chronic insomnia and other sleep-related disorders. However, due to their powerful psychoactive properties, calming, relaxation and sedative effects, prescription sleeping pills are among the most commonly abused prescription drugs — especially among teenage and elderly populations.

Benzodiazepine and sedative-hypnotic drug abuse have also been found to increase one’s risk of developing a substance use addiction or physical dependence disorder. Because of those substances’ considerable risks and propensity for abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies prescription sleeping pills, like Ambien and Halcion, as Schedule IV controlled substances. While these substances have comparatively lower risks of addiction and dependence developing when compared to Schedule I, II and III substances, they still present a significant risk of dependence and addiction; especially for individuals with underlying substance use or co-occurring mental health disorders.

Criminal penalties associated with unlawful use and possession of prescription sleeping pills are generally determined by state-specific controlled substance statutes, which vary from state to state. The severity of penalties an individual faces are primarily dependent upon the amount of the substance within the individual’s possession when they are caught, whether they have previously been convicted of a drug-related offense and the intent of their possession. Despite differences in penalties by state, the use, possession, and distribution of prescription sleeping pills is a criminal offense in every state of the United States.

Crimes Associated with Sleeping Pills

Sleeping pills are available legally in a wide variety of forms, brands, and concentrations, via prescription from a licensed physician. However, because the vast majority of sleep medications (excluding over-the-counter sleep aids like Melatonin) are classified as Schedule IV controlled substances, possession of prescription sleeping pills without a prescription, in any form, is a serious criminal offense with significant legal consequences. Additionally, those with a sleeping pill dependence or substance use disorder are typically unable to get the substance from a physician and will look to either the black market or prescription fraud to obtain it.

A majority of criminal offenses related to the illegal use, possession or distribution of prescription sleeping pills are subject to state-level misdemeanor or felony charges.

Misdemeanor charges are generally applied to instances of unlawful use and low quantities of controlled substance possession. Felony charges are typically the result of being caught with high quantities of the substance, acquisition of the substance through prescription fraud, exhibiting the intent to distribute and for repeat offenders.

The severity of state-level penalties and classification of charges (misdemeanor or felony) an individual will face is almost entirely determined by the amount of sleeping pills within their possession, how they obtained the substance, and the presumed intent of possession. Misdemeanor convictions generally result in small court fines, probation, drug treatment, and monitoring conditions and short periods of incarceration in county jail. Felony convictions are subject to much steeper penalties, with the potential for sentences of up to 10 years in state prison.

In addition to state-level offenses, certain unlawful acts, such as trafficking in prescription sleeping pills, are subject to federal charges and prosecution under the Federal Controlled Substances Act. Trafficking Schedule IV controlled substances is a federal felony offense with mandatory penalties of between $250,000 and $1 million in court fines, and a maximum prison sentence of 5 years. For those with prior federal controlled substance trafficking convictions, these penalties increase to a maximum court fine of $2 million and a maximum prison sentence of 10 years in prison.

Caught Without My Sleeping Pills Prescription

Individuals lawfully prescribed sleeping pills may still face legal penalties if they are caught in possession of the substance in a quantity or form different than that which was prescribed to them. Additionally, those in possession of an expired prescription or without proof of a valid prescription can face misdemeanor or felony charges for unlawful possession of a controlled substance. Because of the strict limitations on controlled substance possession, the only form of legal possession is with a valid prescription.

Sleeping Pills Prescription in a Bottle

All prescription medications, including sleeping pills, are delivered to patients in a container with a prescription medication label detailing the patient’s identification information along with the physician’s name, pharmacy information, expiration date and quantity prescribed.

Prescription medication labels are the best form of prescription verification. As such, prescription sleeping pills should always be stored in their original container. So long as medications are stored in this manner, an individual will not face any legal consequences for possessing prescription sleeping pills. However, failure to adhere to any of these conditions may result in arrest and criminal prosecution.

Prescription Outside the Bottle

The storage of lawfully prescribed medications is even more important in states with strict guidelines regarding prescription possession. Certain states consider prescription storage outside the original container to be an unlawful and prosecutable offense. Individuals who store their sleeping pill prescriptions outside of the original container and in locations such as pockets, bags or any other non-medical storage device have, possibly unknowingly, committed a criminal offense and may face arrest or prosecution.

Typically, these offenses are prosecuted in the same manner as criminal use and possession of controlled substances without a prescription. Regulations regarding the storage of prescription medication vary from state to state and often include a series of unique exemptions and guidelines. Individuals concerned about proper storage of prescription sleep medication should contact their physician to discuss their state’s specific laws.

Caught and Not My Sleeping Pills Prescription

Regardless of circumstance, an individual caught in possession of a sleeping pill prescription belonging to someone else, obtained through the black market or prescription fraud, committed a criminal offense and will likely face severe legal and financial repercussions. These repercussions include arrest, detention, prosecution, court fines, incarceration, and a life-long criminal record.

The specific penalties associated with prescription sleeping pill possession vary considerably by state, so consult with an attorney about specific state laws.

Getting Caught High on Sleeping Pills

The most common offenses related to the unlawful use of prescription sleep medication are those involving driving under the influence. For example, driving under the influence of sleeping pills in the state of California, applies to both prescription and over-the-counter sleep medications, and is prosecuted as a misdemeanor offense punishable by six months in jail, a 10-month driver’s license suspension, three to nine months of DUI school and a fine up to $1,000.

For individuals on probation or drug treatment conditions, non-approved prescription sleeping pill use detected in random drug tests will result in legal consequences far greater than those of the original offense. While sleeping pill use is not typically detectable in standard drug tests, there are a variety of specific tests that can detect it. These tests include urine, hair and saliva tests. Despite an extremely short half-life of 1.5 hours,  prescription sleeping pills, like Ambien, remain detectable in a person’s system for up to 72 hours in urine tests, up to three to five weeks in hair tests, and up to eight hours in saliva tests.

Similar to possession and distribution, unlawful use of prescription sleeping pills is likely to result in severe legal and financial consequences.

If you or a loved one live with a substance use disorder, contact The Recovery Village to speak with a representative about how addiction treatment can work for you. Individualized treatment programs help patients address their addiction alongside any co-occurring disorders. You deserve a healthier future, call today.

Thomas Christiansen
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
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.