The Laws are Tough

  • What is a Schedule I drug?
  • Will I have to go to prison if I am convicted of possession of an illegal drug?
  • Is there a harsher penalty for selling illegal drugs to a minor?

The medical value of narcotics has been known since ancient times. Nearly all cultures have used drugs to treat illnesses or as part of religious rituals. When hypodermic needles were introduced in the mid-1800s, patients were originally encouraged to buy and treat themselves with a variety of powerful drugs. However, society’s view of drug use changed and the first narcotics laws began to appear in the early 1900s. In 1970, the federal government passed the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act that codified federal drug law into a uniform system. The act classifies drugs into five categories, listed in schedules, and establishes regulatory requirements and penalties for the misuse of the drugs on each schedule. The act also allows the attorney general to add drugs to the schedules, if necessary.

The most severe restrictions and penalties involve Schedule I and II drugs. Schedule I drugs are those with a high potential for abuse, an absence of any medical use, and are dangerous to the user even under medical supervision. The most well known of these drugs are heroin, LSD, mescaline, marijuana, and peyote. Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse, a high potential for severe psychological or physical dependency, but also a currently accepted medical use. Schedule II drugs include opium, cocaine, methadone, amphetamines, and methamphetamines. Schedule III drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule II drugs, a potential for moderate psychological or physical dependency, and an accepted medical use.

The most well-known schedule III drug is naline, which is used to detect narcotic use. Schedule IV drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule III drugs, have a limited potential for dependency, and are accepted in medical treatment. These drugs include tranquilizers, meprobamate, chloral hydrate, most drugs that cause sleep, and sedatives. Schedule V drugs, which have a low potential for abuse, limited dependency, and accepted medical uses, include drugs with small amounts of codeine or other narcotics in them.

Drug offenses range from simple possession to participation in an ongoing criminal enterprise to manufacture and distribute drugs. Simple possession requires that the offender knowingly and intentionally possess a scheduled drug without a valid prescription. The government must prove the offender knew the drug was a controlled substance and had either actual possession of it, or other control over it, alone or with another. The federal sentencing guidelines provide for a maximum of one year in prison for a first offender, a maximum of two years in prison for a second offender, and a maximum of three years in prison for a third or higher offender. The sentence for possession of more than five grams of crack has increased to a minimum of five years in prison, even for first offenders.

Manufacturing, delivering, or possessing with intent to deliver a controlled substance is a crime with escalating penalties depending on the drug involved, the quantity of the drug and the offender’s prior record. For example, a first offender convicted of possessing with intent to deliver 100 grams to five kilograms of heroin will receive a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison and up to forty years. Three crimes, distributing controlled substances to persons under twenty-one years of age, distributing controlled substances near a school, and using persons under age eighteen to violate drug laws, are penalty-enhancement crimes for which the sentence is double or triple what it would otherwise be for distributing that particular amount and type of drug. The offense of continuing criminal enterprise is charged when the defendant commits a felony drug violation as part of a continuing enterprise with five or more individuals from which substantial income is obtained. Its penalty is twenty years to life in prison, or even the death penalty if the offender intentionally kills another.

Most states have drug laws that mirror the federal act. However, the penalties may be less harsh and more flexible under state sentencing schemes than under the federal sentencing guidelines. A conviction of simple possession, for example may receive a sentence of drug treatment rather than jail time, and probation may be available to first-time offenders for even the more serious crimes.

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