What Is a Controlled Substance?

Generally, a controlled substance is an illegal drug that can have a detrimental effect on a person's health and welfare. As a result, state and federal governments have seen fit to regulate these substances. A person caught possessing a controlled substance can be fined and held in prison by local, state, and federal law enforcement.

However, not all controlled substances are illegal in all circumstances - many are prescribed to the general public and sold through pharmacies and dispensaries for legitimate medical treatment. To determine if a particular drug is legal, you should refer to the federal controlled substance schedules. Read on to learn more about the different controlled substances schedules and how state and federal governments enforce controlled substance laws.

Controlled Substance Schedules: Which Drugs Can I Legally Possess?  

The federal government defines a controlled substance as any of the substances listed in the schedules of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 (CSA). The schedules are broken down into five categories:

  • Schedule I – These substances have no accepted medical use, are unsafe, and hold a high potential for abuse. Examples include heroin, LSD, marijuana, peyote, and ecstasy.
  • Schedule II – These narcotics and stimulants have a high potential for abuse and engender severe psychological or physical dependence. Examples include Dilaudid, methadone, Demerol, OxyContin, Percocet, morphine, opium, codeine, amphetamine (Dexedrine, Adderall), and methamphetamine
  • Schedule III – These are substances that have less potential for abuse but can still lead to moderate or low physical dependence and high psychological dependence. They include Vicodin,  Tylenol/Codeine, Suboxone, ketamine, and anabolic steroids.
  • Schedule IV – These ubstances have a lower potential for abuse than Schedule III drugs, and include Xanax, Soma, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, Versed, Restoril, and Halcion.
  • Schedule V – These are primarily preparations that contain limited quantities of narcotics, including cough syrups that contain codeine.

Technically, it’s illegal to possess any one of the drugs listed in the schedules. However, if you are properly prescribed and have lawfully purchased one of the substances, you have not violated the law and you are exempt from prosecution.

Penalties for drug offenses vary depending on the drug and the quantity of drug that was involved in the crime. For example, someone charged with 500-4999 grams mixture of cocaine, a schedule II drug, will receive between 5-40 years in prison and a fine of less than $5 million. If the crime involved death or serious bodily injury, the punishment increases to between 20 years and life imprisonment, plus less than a $5 million fine. The same penalty applies to several other drugs/drug quantities, even though the drugs may be classified in different drug schedules. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Division provides charts illustrating drug trafficking penalties.

State and Federal Controlled Substances Laws - What Applies?

The Controlled Substances Act is a federal law, so any state laws that conflict with the CSA likely won't be upheld by a federal court. The Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution provides that if there's a conflict between a state and a federal law, the federal law preempts, or takes supremacy over, the state law. However, the states are allowed flexibility in how they decide to enforce (or not enforce) the CSA, and some states have created even stricter laws. The vast majority of states have simply adopted the provisions of the CSA by adopting the Uniform Controlled Substances Act of 1973. Only thirty states have adopted the updated version that provides more authority for state governments to seize assets in criminal prosecutions.

In the case of marijuana regulation, the CSA trumps all state laws under the Supremacy Clause, so marijuana possession remains illegal in all fifty states. States wishing to allow for more leniency in marijuana use simply do not criminalize the possession and use of small amounts marijuana or pass "medical marijuana" regulations to allow possession and use for limited medical purposes. While many of these regulations still directly contradict the CSA, the Attorney General has directed federal prosecutors not to use their resources to pursue individuals who are in compliance with their existing state laws.

Crimes Associated with Controlled Substances

Under the CSA, it’s unlawful to do the following with a controlled or counterfeit substance:

  • Manufacture
  • Distribute (import, export, or traffic)
  • Dispense
  • Possess with intent to manufacture, distribute (import, export, or traffic), or dispense
  • Attempt or conspire to do any of the above

The above terms are interpreted quite broadly, so the mere possession of any drug listed in the CSA schedules is subject to prosecution and punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment. State laws regulating controlled substances vary widely, so you should check the law of your state with the National Association of State Controlled Substances Authorities.

Get a Free Case Review from an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

Whether you're facing criminal charges or whether you're wondering whether you can legally travel with your own prescription medication, you should consult with a criminal defense attorney to review the current state of the law as it applies to you. If you're being investigated for possession of a controlled substance, you should take advantage of a free case evaluation from a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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