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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 any acceptable medical use. Each schedule is governed by different rules regarding drug production, sale, possession, and use. Depending on the schedule and the type of drug, the punishment for a violation may vary greatly. The role drug classification plays in the focus of drug law enforcement can be controversial to many.

For example, whether marijuana (cannabis) should fall under Schedule I, with the regulation, enforcement, and punishment that comes with such classification, is a matter of intense and continuing debate. Although the CSA provides a backdrop for drug classification, each state implements its own version of drug classification schedules. Some do vary from the federal schedules. In recent years, some reformist states have also created 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. There is no currently accepted medical use for these drugs. As a result, any knowing possession of a controlled substance from Schedule I amounts to a drug offense. Furthermore, none of the controlled substances in Schedule I will be dispensed as prescription drugs. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are heroin, ecstasy (MDMA), peyote, marijuana (cannabis), GHB, 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. Unlike Schedule I drugs, Schedule II drugs have currently accepted medical uses, so it's possible to get a legal prescription for a Schedule II drug. The dangers of Schedule II drug use demand heavy regulation and restrictions on medical use. Examples include cocaine, morphine, oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, methadone, Vicodin, Adderall, Ritalin, PCP, and methamphetamine.

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. This means that you can get a legal prescription for these drugs. Examples include anabolic steroids, ketamine, testosterone, Tylenol with codeine, and Marinol.

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, and Ativan.

Schedule V

Schedule V drugs have a low potential for abuse and a low, limited potential for dependence. These drugs have currently accepted medical uses and can also come with a prescription. Examples include codeine-infused cough syrups like Robitussin AC, ezogabine, and Lyrica.

The legality of use and possession of drugs depends on the schedule classification and the acceptable medical use for the drug. As Schedule I drugs have no acceptable medical use, under federal law it is illegal to possess or use a Schedule I drug (heroin, marijuana, LSD, ecstasy). 

Schedule II drugs have limited, though potentially dangerous, medical uses, so you can possess and use a Schedule II drug with a valid prescription. However, you cannot refill a Schedule II drug prescription. If you need a new supply, you must contact your doctor for a new prescription.

Schedule III, IV, and V drugs have accepted medical uses. You can use them with a valid prescription. Keep in mind, if you do not have a prescription, possession or use of any Schedule II, III, IV, and V drugs is illegal. Illegal drug possession can carry significant criminal penalties.

Who Decides How To Classify a Drug?

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a federal agency that falls under the U.S. Attorney General and the Department of Justice (DOJ). It works as both a law enforcement program and a regulatory agency for controlled substances. 

The DEA will assign new drugs to an appropriate schedule. It can also engage an administrative process to change a drug's placement in the schedules. For example, it is in the process of reviewing the recommendation to reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III at this time. Other than the DEA, Congress can pass legislation to remove a drug from classification or to reschedule it.

The DEA also works with other countries to establish and enforce treaties and protocols related to controlled substances. Not all countries classify drugs the same way. For example, the system in the United Kingdom comes from the Misuse of Drugs Act. It creates three drug classifications designated by letters. 

Those in Class A tend to be the most dangerous drugs and can cause the most harm to people. Class A contains heroin, cocaine, LSD, methamphetamine, and "magic mushrooms." 

Class B drugs carry less danger but still remain as controlled substances. They include marijuana (cannabis), ketamine, amphetamines, and barbiturates. 

Class C drugs include substances perceived to cause less harm. They include anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines, and GHB. In contrast to the United States, a doctor in the United Kingdom can potentially prescribe any controlled substance to a patient.

State Law Differences

States have their own drug classification schemes, though for the most part they follow the federal laws 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 2013 to increase regulation of such drugs. These drugs remained in Schedule III in the federal classification system until 2014.

The decriminalization and legalization of marijuana has become a hot-button issue that varies significantly between states. In Colorado, the recreational consumption of cannabis is legal. A resident age 21 or older can possess up to two ounces of marijuana for personal use. Colorado does not list cannabis as a controlled substance in its schedules. 

Still, there are certain restrictions. For example, there are limits on how much cannabis can be carried while traveling. Colorado also prohibits public consumption. Driving under the influence of cannabis remains illegal.

In California, anyone 21 or older can legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana for recreational use. You cannot smoke marijuana in public, including restaurants, bars, parks, and roads. Having an open container of cannabis in a motor vehicle is also prohibited. Local communities can have stricter rules than the state.

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.

When it comes to marijuana, possession remains illegal under federal law. As of late 2023, the federal government has provided limited interference, letting states set their own marijuana laws and policies. Even though state laws may be progressive, whether it is for 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, but 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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