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How Are Illegal Drugs Classified in the U.S.?

how are illegal drugs classified


There are many different ways to categorize prescriptions and other drugs. For those in the pharmaceutical industry, it’s most beneficial to classify drugs according to the conditions they treat. However, the federal government has a slightly different system for classifying illegal drugs, evaluating them according to the drug's potential for abuse and physical or psychological dependence.

While individuals can purchase legal drugs over-the-counter or with a verified prescription, illegal drugs cannot be bought, sold, or manufactured within the United States. Furthermore, some drugs are legal in specific situations and may be considered illegal if an individual is found guilty of abusing them. Ultimately, this drug classification system exists to protect U.S. citizens from the consequences of drug abuse and trafficking.

How Does the Federal Government Classify Illegal Drugs?

The federal government created the Controlled Substances Act to regulate legal and illegal drug use. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is responsible for enforcing these standards, which place each drug into a classification referred to as a "schedule." The DEA defines each schedule based on its potential for abuse and medical value.

First, the DEA will assess a drug's abuse potential. If the users have the ability to abuse a drug, it is on a schedule. Drugs that do not have addictive qualities are not scheduled. After assessing a drug's potential for abuse, officials decide where it belongs. 

The DEA classifies drugs using the following criteria:

  • Dependency potential
  • Abuse potential
  • Accepted medical use

When federal agencies classify drugs, they define abuse as when individuals take a substance that causes them to develop personal health issues or pose a risk to society. For officials to assess a drug's medical value, there must be large-scale clinical trials that support this claim. This process is akin to that which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) uses to evaluate any available drugs.

Overview of Drug Schedules

Below are the current classifications for controlled substances. However, drug classifications may change in the event that officials discover relevant information that is related to the drug's scheduling.

Schedule I Drugs

Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and physical or psychological dependence. These drugs have no accepted medical value. Schedule I drugs include the following:

  • LSD
  • GHB
  • Cannabis (marijuana)
  • Heroin
  • Molly/ecstasy/MDMA
  • Methaqualone
  • Peyote
  • Psilocybin (magic mushrooms)

Schedule II Drugs

Schedule II drugs have a high potential for dependence and abuse. These drugs have limited medical value. Schedule II drugs include the following:

  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine (meth)
  • Hydrocodone (Percocet and Vicodin)
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Codeine
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • Fentanyl
  • Meperidine
  • Dextroamphetamine (Dexedrine)
  • Amphetamine (Adderall)
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin)

Schedule III Drugs

Schedule III drugs have moderate potential for abuse, meaning that while users can abuse them, it is unlikely. These drugs have a low to moderate potential for dependence. Schedule III drugs include:

  • Anabolic steroids
  • Ketamine
  • Testosterone
  • Products with less than 90mg of codeine, such as Tylenol with codeine

Schedule IV Drugs

Schedule IV drugs have a low potential for dependence and abuse. Schedule IV drugs are as follows:

  • Phenobarbital
  • Flunitrazepam (Rohypnol, also known as roofies)
  • Benzodiazepines (Ativan, Valium, Klonopin, Xanax)
  • Tramadol (Ultram)
  • Zolpidem (Ambien)

Schedule V Drugs

Drugs classified as Schedule V have a low potential for abuse, dependency, or misuse. Some Schedule V drugs are also over-the-counter medications. Schedule V drugs are as follows:

  • Pregabalin (Lyrica)
  • Motoren
  • Lomotil
  • Robitussin AC

What's the Difference Between Federal and State Drug Laws?

Drug classification is vital to the federal government's work, lawmakers, and law enforcement. This classification system affects state laws, criminal penalties, federal regulation, and overall drug policies.

State and federal drug crime laws determine the criminal penalties for possessing, manufacturing, or selling controlled substances. While the federal government has laws that discourage the distribution and use of controlled substances, so does each state. If you or someone you love faces a conviction for a state or federal drug crime, you must understand the difference between federal and state laws.

The main difference between state and federal law is the consequences an individual will face if convicted of a drug crime. If an individual is convicted of a federal drug charge, they will likely face a felony charge, which entails longer jail sentences and harsher punishments than state drug crimes. If an individual faces state drug charges for possession but do not have the intent to distribute these substances, their charges may include a misdemeanor or felony, which has a less severe sentence.

The Most Common State and Federal Drug Crimes

When an individual is convicted of a state or federal drug crime, it often falls into one of the following categories:

  • Distribution occurs when a person is suspected of selling or delivering a controlled substance. Individuals are often charged with distribution if they sell a controlled substance to an undercover police officer.
  • Trafficking occurs when a person is accused of illegally selling a controlled substance. However, a drug trafficking conviction is dependent on the amount of the controlled substance that law enforcement found in their possession.
  • Manufacturing refers to the process of growing or making a controlled substance. This includes possessing, growing, or producing naturally occurring substances to create an illegal controlled substance.
  • Possession is the most common drug charge. If a person is guilty of possessing a controlled substance, prosecutors must have evidence that the person intentionally possessed the controlled substance without a valid prescription. In addition, the individual must possess an amount of the substance that is great enough for sale or personal use.

Identify Illegal Drug Use with Countrywide Testing

Identifying illegal drug use early on is the first step that users must take to obtain the medical assistance necessary to safely discontinue using controlled substances. 

Countrywide Testing is an online retailer of many health-related diagnostic test devices, including drug tests. If you’re concerned that a loved one may be abusing an illegal drug, let Countrywide Testing offer you peace of mind with our FDA-approved at-home drug testing kits.

Our drug kits are all analyzed with laboratory services from Phamatech, Inc, a SAMHSA, ISO, CLIA, and CAP licensed laboratory, to provide you with fast and reliable results that you can trust.

When you need answers, Countrywide is there. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help!