The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, commonly known as the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), is a statute establishing a federal policy to regulate the manufacturing, distributing, importing/exporting, and use of regulated substances.
The CSA places all substances that were in some manner regulated under existing federal law into one of five categories called “schedules.” This placement is based on the substance’s medical use, potential for abuse, and liability for safety or dependence.
The 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 anyone who unlawfully violates the CSA.
Controlled substances are assigned to different schedules based on their characteristics, including their medicinal value, the possibility of abuse, public safety, and likelihood of dependency. By categorizing these drugs and substances, it makes it easier to regulate or deregulate these drugs and substances as needed.
How Are Drugs Divided Into Schedules?
In determining which schedule a drug or other substance should be placed into or whether a substance should be decontrolled or rescheduled, certain factors are required to be considered.
These factors are listed in the CSA. They include:
- Its potential for abuse, as well as its history and pattern of being abused
- The scope, duration, and significance of abuse
- Its psychic or physiological dependence liability
- Scientific evidence of its pharmacological effect
- The state of current scientific knowledge regarding the substance
- What, if any, risk there is to the public health
- Whether and how the substance is related to a substance already controlled by the CSA
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 they generally fall into several recognizable larger groups. Those groups of products include:
- Narcotics: such as heroin, methadone, morphine, opium and fentanyl
- Stimulants: such as cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine
- 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, or anything else that gives 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 are not currently used for medical purposes, and have a high potential for abuse and dependency. No prescriptions may be written for Schedule I substances. Drugs listed in this schedule include heroin, psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, MDMA (Ecstasy), LSD, and marijuana. The most contested controlled substance is marijuana, which has been petitioned and denied reclassification despite many states making marijuana legal and decriminalization in other states.
- Schedule II drugs and substances have less potential for addiction than Schedule I substances and have some accepted medical use. However, they still carry a high potential for psychological or physical dependence. Schedule II controlled substances include amphetamines, many barbiturates, cocaine (used as a local anesthetic or to stop severe epistaxis), many opioids (fentanyl, hydromorphone, morphine, oxycodone, etc.), and phencyclidine, also known as PCP (used as a veterinary anesthetic).
- Schedule III drugs and substances have a lower potential for abuse than Schedule I and II substances and have some medically accepted use. They carry a risk of moderate to low physical or psychological dependence. Examples of Schedule III substances include codeine, anabolic steroids, and testosterone.
- Schedule IV drugs and substances have a low potential for abuse compared to Schedule I – III controlled substances. They have an accepted medical use, and their dependence risk is limited 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. They have an accepted medical use and a low physical or psychological dependence risk. They contain only limited quantities of narcotics. Cough medicines fall under Schedule V.
What About Prescription Drugs?
Some commonly prescribed drugs fall into Schedule II. An example is methylphenidate. Brand names include Ritalin or Concerta. To be considered valid, a controlled substance prescription must be issued by a practitioner in the usual course of their practice, and it must be issued for a legitimate medical purpose. If these criteria are not met, and the prescription has still been refilled, the person dispensing the medication is subject to penalties for violating the CSA.
Who May Reclassify or Decontrol a Drug or Substance?
Proceedings to add, delete, or transfer a drug or other substance from one schedule to another 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
Once the DEA collects all relevant data, it requests a scientific and medical evaluation and recommendation, which the FDA prepares. Once the DEA receives this information, it evaluates all the data and makes a final proposal.
How Are Drugs Regulated Under the CSA?
The CSA requires controlled substances to be registered by manufacturers, distributors, and dispensers. However, smaller distributors are relieved from the registration requirements. DEA’s regulations allow practitioners to distribute up to 5% of the total controlled substances dispensed in a calendar year without being registered with DEA as a distributor.
The regulations determining these products’ registration are in place for the public interest and provide for stringent safeguards. The level of restriction placed on the substance depends on whether the product is a higher scheduled drug or substance or a lower one.
Under the law, manufacturers, distributors, and dispensers must 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 have a controlled substance without authorization. It imposes penalties based on the type and amount of drug or substance and where it falls on the schedules. These laws can be applied to both the seller and the drug user.
Intent in possessing the controlled substance will also be considered. For example, it can make a difference whether the drug user intended to sell the drugs or 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 facing charges concerning a crime under the Controlled Substances Act, a well-qualified and experienced drug lawyer will be able to defend you against the charges. They will protect your constitutional rights, give you information about the evidence against you, negotiate with the prosecution on your behalf, and, if necessary, represent you at trial and on appeal. Find a skilled local criminal law attorney. The potential consequences are simply too serious to risk.