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Drug Classifications

The federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) classifies drugs into five schedules based on the potential for abuse and whether the drug has been proven and accepted for medical use. Each schedule is governed by different rules regarding drug production, sale, possession, and use, and, depending on the schedule, the punishment for a violation may be more severe. The role of drug classification in systematizing drug enforcement has made it an especially controversial area of the law for reformers.

For example, whether cannabis should be considered a Schedule I drug (with the regulation, enforcement, and punishment that comes with such classification) is a matter of intense and continuing debate. And though the federal law provides a backdrop for drug classification, each state implements its own version of drug classification schedules, with some being quite a bit different than the federal schedules. In recent years, some reformist states have also sidestepped drug classification issues through the creation of personal use and possession exceptions.

Federal Drug Schedules

Schedule I

Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse, as well as a high potential for severe dependence. As there’s no currently accepted medical use for these drugs, all possession or use is illegal. In other words, there’s no federal medical license available for Schedule I drugs. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are cannabis, ecstasy, heroin, and psychedelics (Mushrooms, DMT, LSD)

Schedule II

Schedule II drugs also have a high potential for abuse as well as a high potential for severe dependence, but, unlike Schedule I drugs, Schedule II drugs have currently accepted medical uses. It’s therefore possible to get a legal prescription for a Schedule II drugs. The dangers of Schedule II drug use demand heavy regulation and restrictions on medical use, however. Examples include morphine, methadone, adderall, ritalin, and more.

Schedule III

Schedule III drugs have a moderate potential for abuse and a moderate potential for dependence. Schedule III drugs have currently accepted medical uses, meaning it’s generally possible to get a legal prescription for these drugs. Examples include anabolic steroids, ketamine, marinol, and more.

Schedule IV

Schedule IV drugs have a low potential for abuse and a low, limited potential for dependence. Schedule IV drugs have currently accepted medical uses (it is possible to get a legal prescription). Examples include Valium, Xanax, Ambien, difenoxin, and more.

Schedule V

Schedule V drugs have a low potential for abuse – even lower than Schedule IV – and a low, limited potential for dependence. These drugs have currently accepted medical uses, and it’s possible to obtain a legal prescription for them. Examples include codeine-infused cough syrups, ezogabine, and more.

The legality of possession and use of various drugs depends on the schedule classification, and specifically, whether there is an acceptable medical use for the drug. As Schedule I drugs are defined as those drugs with no acceptable medical use, under federal law it is illegal to possess or use a Schedule I drug for any purpose (cannabis, LSD, ecstasy, etc.). Schedule II drugs have limited – though potentially dangerous – medical uses, so you can possess and use a Schedule II drug for that limited medical purpose if it has been directly dispensed or prescribed to you. You may not refill a Schedule II drug prescription.

Schedule III, IV, and V drugs have accepted medical uses, and may be used if you have a valid prescription. Keep in mind, however, that if you do not have a prescription, possession or use of any Schedule II, III, IV, and V drugs is illegal and may carry significant penalties.

Learn more about federal crimes on our federal law legal answers page.

State Law Differences

States have their own drug classification schemes, though for the most part they follow the federal law closely. In general, state classification schemes let the individual states respond more quickly to potentially dangerous drugs, or to pull back regulations on drugs for which some medical use has been found. For example, in New York, hydrocodone combination drugs were reclassified to Schedule II in order to increase regulation of such drugs, whereas, under federal law, hydrocodone combination drugs are classified as Schedule III.

The decriminalization and legalization of cannabis has become a hot-button issue that varies significantly between states. In Colorado, recreational consumption of cannabis is legal, but there are certain restrictions. For example, there are limits on how much cannabis can be carried while traveling, public consumption is illegal, and one cannot drive under the influence of cannabis

In some states, cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug and personal recreational consumption is still illegal, but state law has carved out exceptions for medical use. Virginia, for example, allows the use of CBD oil for certain medical conditions.

Remember, though state laws may be progressive – whether it is medical use of cannabis or decriminalization or even legalization for personal recreational use – when you are traveling between state lines, you will be subject to federal law. For example, if you travel between Colorado and Utah with cannabis, you could be subject to severe penalties for violating federal drug trafficking laws. Learn the laws of your state regarding drug use, and be aware of the harsher federal laws that may operate outside of your state.

Have More Questions About Drug Classification? Ask an Attorney

As you can see, drug laws can be tricky, especially when there are differences between federal and state law. Because the consequences of getting it wrong can be drastic, you should make sure that you understand what laws apply to you and when they apply. To learn more about drug classification or obtaining representation to defend against drug charges, contact a local drug crime lawyer today.

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