Key takeaways:

  • There are legal penalties for making, possessing, using, or selling a controlled substance without the proper permission or authority. The penalties are determined by the schedule of the drug or other substance, with schedule I and II drugs typically carrying the highest legal penalties
  • Proceedings to add, delete, or change the schedule of a drug or other substance may be initiated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), or by petition from any interested party
  • The User Accountability section of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was established to heighten awareness of the federal government’s position on drug abuse and also to create programs to decrease drug abuse by holding users personally accountable for illicit drug practices

The Controlled Substances Act is a system designed to categorize both illicit drugs and medication into different tiers based on their likelihood to cause damage to health and by how addictive they are.

What is the controlled substances act?

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is the law that regulates and classifies legal and illegal drugs in the USA. Drugs are categorized into different “schedules” according to the perceived danger they pose and the potential for addiction or dependence. 

Proceedings to add, delete, or change the schedule of a drug or other substance may be initiated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), or by petition from any interested party, including: 

  • The manufacturer of a drug 
  • A medical society or association 
  • A pharmacy association 
  • A public interest group concerned with drug abuse 
  • A state or local government agency 
  • An individual citizen 

The CSA places allowances and restrictions on drugs with regards to:

  • Possession
  • Manufacturing
  • Importation
  • Use
  • Distribution

According to the DEA, each class has distinguishing properties, such as their potential for abuse, dependence, and addiction.

The CSA is primarily used to distinguish drug offenses in criminal proceedings and help physicians when prescribing medications. 

Alcohol and tobacco products are not regulated under the CSA.

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Schedules and drugs

The scheduling of a specific substance depends on its potency, addictive potential, and possible threat to a person’s physical and mental health. The DEA uses this 5 tiered scheduling system to classify drugs (both prescribed and illicit drugs): [1]

  • Schedule I substances (e.g., heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana, and ecstasy) have a high potential for abuse and do not have a federally recognized medical use.
  • Schedule II substances (e.g., oxycodone, fentanyl, morphine, opium, codeine, and hydrocodone) have a high potential for abuse; however, they have recognized medical uses. 
  • Schedule III substances (e.g., buprenorphine, ketamine, and anabolic steroids) have less potential for abuse and have a moderate to low potential for physical dependence.
  • Schedule IV substances (e.g., alprazolam (Xanax), diazepam (Valium), tramadol, and zolpidem have a lower risk of dependence compared to schedule I-III substances.
  • Schedule V substances (e.g., pregabalin) have a low potential for abuse.  

Penalties

There are legal penalties for making, possessing, using, or selling a controlled substance without the proper permission or authority. The penalties are determined by the schedule of the drug or other substance, with schedule I and II drugs typically carrying the highest legal penalties. Higher penalties can also come for people who possess large quantities of a scheduled narcotic, especially if they are suspected to be selling it illegally.

On November 19, 1988, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. Two sections of this Act represent the U.S. Government’s attempt to reduce drug abuse by dealing not just with the person who sells the illegal drug, but also with the person who buys it. The first new section is titled “User Accountability,” and the second involves “personal use amounts” of illegal drugs. [1]

User accountability

The User Accountability section of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was established to heighten awareness of the federal government’s position on drug abuse and also to create programs to decrease drug abuse by holding users personally accountable for illicit drug practices. The penalties associated with User Accountability are issued in addition to criminal penalties and one does not replace the other. 

User Accountability programs call for more instruction in schools to educate children on the dangers of drug abuse, for businesses that have links to the federal government to operate drug-free workplaces, and for public housing projects to evict tenants that use their domicile for drug abuse. In addition, anyone who has a prior conviction for illicit drug activity may be denied access to federal benefits such as housing assistance or student loans. [1]

Personal use amounts

This section of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act is intended to allow drug offenders caught with only a small amount of drugs (depending on the schedule type) to pay a fine instead of entering into a full criminal investigation. The intention of this is to reduce the amount of money spent by the government on criminal proceedings for minor drug offenses and to minimize offenders' interaction with the justice system. These civil fines for small personal use amounts can be up to $10,000. [1] 

In some states and countries, having a small amount of an illicit drug (like marijuana) for ‘personal use’ is allowed, while other states penalize people for any possession of an illegal drug, no matter the quantity.

Final thoughts

The DEA scheduling system is designed to classify drugs that have the highest risk of abuse, addiction, and harm to an individual and society. Making, possessing, using or selling a scheduled drug is illegal, and can result in severe penalties, fines, and even prison time. Understanding the Controlled Substance Act is important so that individuals can avoid legal penalties.