The Controlled Substances Act (CSA): Overview

Throughout its history, the United States has made many attempts to outlaw addictive drugs and enact laws concerning consumer protections and public health. This effort resulted in over 200 drug laws that were hard to keep track of and didn't effectively meet the country's drug problems. In an attempt to remedy this, President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970. It combines all prior existing federal drug laws into one single statute.

What does the CSA do?

The Controlled Substances Act is the federal drug policy that regulates the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances such as hallucinogens, narcotics, depressants, and stimulants. The Act categorizes drugs into five “Schedules” or classifications based on their potential for abuse, status in international treaties, and any medical benefits they may provide. Drugs classified in Schedule 1 are considered the most harmful substances with no medical benefits, and the rest descend from there:

  • Schedule 1: Examples of Schedule 1 drugs include Ecstasy, LSD, and Heroin. Marijuana is also considered a Schedule 1 drug despite several studies done on its medical benefits.

  • Schedule 2: Examples of Schedule 2 drugs include Cocaine and Morphine.

  • Schedule 3: Examples of Schedule 3 drugs include Anabolic steroids, Vicodin, and Marinol, which is used to treat nausea caused by chemotherapy.

  • Schedule 4: Examples of Schedule 4 drugs include Ambien, Xanax, and Valium.

  • Schedule 5: Examples of Schedule 5 drugs include Lyrica and cough suppressants.

This system of schedules makes it easier for state legislatures to enact criminal statutes by referring to the schedules rather than having to list all substances within the text of the law. It also makes it easier for drugs to be added and removed from a schedule rather than having to change an entire drug law. For more information on the breakdown of the schedules, see here.

State legislatures must create drug laws that are in compliance with the Controlled Substances Act. This means that the state drug laws may be more narrow than federal drug laws, but may not override them or be in conflict with them.

The penalties for drug crimes typically depend on which schedule the drug falls into. For example, federal penalty for trafficking less than 50 kilograms of marijuana, a Schedule 1 drug, is no more than 5 years in federal prison and up to a $250,000 fine for the first offense. While a person who is in possession of a Schedule 5 drug like codeine, will be charged with a first degree misdemeanor with up to one year in prison.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

The Controlled Substances Act also requires that every person who manufactures, distributes, imports, and exports any drug to register under the law. This ensures that all registrants keep accurate records of their inventory and transactions in the event that they must be investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The DEA was also created by President Richard Nixon in 1973 as an agency tasked with regulating the use of controlled substances.

The DEA is responsible for the enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act and may initiate proceedings to change a drug's schedule or to add or erase any drug from a certain schedule. The DEA is also responsible for making sure registrants abide by security controls and storage requirements set forth by the Controlled Substances Act. In addition, the DEA works cooperatively with state and local law enforcement in special task forces to help stop drug trafficking and gang related drug violence that occurs nationwide.

Caught with a controlled substance?

Possession or distribution of illegal drugs is considered a crime under federal and state laws which can result in criminal prosecution. The manufacturing of illegal drugs is considered a felony. The consequences of a conviction can include hefty fines and prison time. In addition, those who help to produce any kind of illegal drug may also be charged with the crime and are typically subject to consequences that are much more severe than possession of a drug for personal use.

Facing Drug Charges? An Attorney Can Help

If you've been charged with a controlled substance violation and are facing criminal prosecution, it's important to establish your defense for trial or to explore plea bargain options. An experienced criminal law attorney will have a solid grasp of the drug laws of your state and your chances of success. 

Next Steps

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