The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) represents the comprehensive efforts of the federal government in regulating the manufacture, possession, dispensing, distribution, and use of certain drugs and other dangerous substances (together, controlled substances). Significant civil and criminal penalties can be imposed on any person who unlawfully violates the CSA.

The CSA has assigned a long list of different products into one of five categories called schedules. These controlled substances are assigned to the different schedules based on their characteristics, including their medicinal value, possibility of abuse, safety to the public and likelihood for dependency. By categorizing these drugs and substances, it makes it easier to regulate or deregulate these drugs and substances as needed.

Who May Reclassify or Decontrol a Drug or Substance?

From time to time the Attorney General may start a proceeding to control or transfer a drug from one schedule to another based on a scientific and medical evaluation from the Secretary of Health and Human Services and based on the characteristics articulated above.

The Attorney General may also initiate a proceeding to do so on the petition of an “interested party,” for example, the DEA, U.S. Health and Human Services, a drug manufacturer, a public interest group, an individual citizen, or state or local agency.

What Drugs or Substances are Covered In the CSA Schedules?

The list of different types of drugs and substances that are covered in the five schedules under the CSA is pretty exhaustive, but generally fall into several recognizable larger groups. Those group of products include:

  • Narcotics: such as heroin, methadone, morphine, opium and fentanyl;
  • Stimulants: such as cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamines;
  • Depressants: such as GHB, rohypnol, and benzodiazepines;
  • Hallucinogens: such as LSD, peyote, and ecstasy
  • Other: such as marijuana, steroids and inhalants (essentially household products—spray paint, felt markers, anything that give off chemical vapors and which may be inhaled for psychoactive effects).

The schedules are ranked from most dangerous (i.e. least medicinal value and highest potential for abuse) to least dangerous (most medical value and least potential for abuse). More specifically:

  • Schedule I drugs and substances have no currently accepted medical use and have a high potential for abuse and dependency. They include popular drugs like heroin, ecstasy and marijuana.
  • Schedule II drugs and substances have a lesser potential for abuse tha Schedule I substances and have some accepted medical use. However, they still carry a high potential for psychological or physical dependence. Some examples include Vicodin, cocaine, and oxycontin.  
  • Schedule III drugs and substances, on the other hand, while still considered dangerous when compared to schedules IV and V, have a lesser potential for abuse and also have some medical accepted use.
    • They carry a risk of moderate to low physical or psychological dependence. Examples of Schedule III products include codeine, anabolic steroids, and testosterone.
  • Schedule IV drugs and substances are considered to have a low potential for abuse when compared to schedules 1-3 controlled substances.
    • They have an accepted medical use and a risk for limited dependence when compared to other drugs and substances. Valium, Ambien, and Xanax are Schedule IV products.
  • Schedule V drugs and substances have the lowest potential for abuse when compared to other scheduled drugs and substances. They have an accepted medical use and a risk of limited physical or psychological dependence also when compared to the other scheduled controlled substances.
    • They contain only limited quantities of narcotics. Cough medicines fall under Schedule V.

How are Drugs Regulated Under the CSA?

The CSA requires certain controlled substances to be registered by manufacturers, distributors and dispensers. The regulations determine registration of these products are in the public interest and provide for the most stringent safeguards depending on whether the product is a higher scheduled drug or substance.

Essentially, manufacturers, distributors and dispensers, as the case may be, are required to have effective safeguards (i.e. labeling, packaging, and record keeping) in place to avoid the unlawful diversion of the controlled substance.

The CSA also makes it illegal for a person to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance or to be in possession of a controlled substance without authorization. It imposes certain penalties based on the scheduled (i.e. type and amount) drug  or substance and can be applied to the seller and the drug user.

Your intent in possessing the controlled substance will also be considered. For example, it can make a difference whether you intended to sell the drugs or intended to use them personally. Generally speaking, possession of a controlled substance for personal use will carry a lesser sentence than possession with the intent to sell.  Any person caught violating the CSA may be subject to a jail term and fines.

Do I Require a Lawyer If I am Charged under the Controlled Substances Act?

If you are being charged with a crime under the Controlled Substances Act, you should consider consulting a local criminal attorney. An attorney will explain your rights and help you mount a vigorous response to the charges.