Generally, a controlled substance is an illegal drug that can have a detrimental effect on a person's health and welfare. As a result, federal and state 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.
Having answered the question "what is a controlled substance?", a natural follow up inquiry is whether possessing controlled substances is always unlawful. The answer is that 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:
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 (DEA) 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.
Crimes Associated with Controlled Substances
Under the CSA, it’s unlawful to do the following with a controlled or counterfeit substance:
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.
More Questions About Controlled Substances? Ask an Attorney
It's important to understand what is a controlled substance and what is not. Whether you're facing criminal charges for possession of a controlled substance or you're wondering if you can legally travel with your own prescription medication, you should consult with a local criminal defense attorney to review the current state of the law as it applies to you.