The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has classified or scheduled drugs, as well as some of their precursors, into categories depending on the drug’s potential for abuse and accepted medical use. In theory, this effort is made to keep potentially dangerous drugs out of the hands of users who are likely to become addicts.
However, the federal drug scheduling system, mandated by the Controlled Substances Act, is often somewhat counterintuitive. For example, marijuana is under the same regulatory schedule as heroin and is defined as having no current acceptable medical use with a high abuse potential – despite credible evidence to the contrary.
An added layer of complexity is that the scheduling of a substance does not necessarily dictate how possession, manufacture or distribution will be prosecuted. For example, federal marijuana laws are some of the least severe despite marijuana’s Schedule I classification.
Below, we have created a simple guide to the drug scheduling system, including how common drugs are scheduled, and the effects that scheduling has on drug crime prosecution.
The Federal Drug Scheduling System
The drug scheduling system was developed to classify drugs based on the accepted medical uses for the drug, as well as the potential for dependency and abuse. This is a simple concept in theory, but is not always intuitive.
The biggest distinction between Schedule I and Schedule II substances is whether there is any accepted medical use. Past this, drugs are classified based on the potential for dependency and abuse.
The DEA defines Schedule I drugs as having no currently accepted medical utility, and high potential for addiction and abuse.
Common Schedule I drugs include:
Schedule II drugs are defined as having a high potential for abuse, with use commonly leading to physical or psychological dependence. However, Schedule II drugs may have some acceptable medical uses.
Common Schedule II drugs include:
Schedule III drugs are defined as having a moderate to low potential for addiction.
Common Schedule III drugs include:
- Low-dose narcotic painkillers (For example Tylenol 3)
- Anabolic steroids
Schedule IV drugs have low potential for abuse and dependence, and they have accepted medical uses when used appropriately.
Common Schedule IV drugs include:
Schedule V drugs are defined as having a lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV drugs, and they consist mainly of drug preparations that contain low doses of narcotics.
Common Schedule V drugs include:
- Codeine cough syrups
What Scheduling Means for Federal Drug Crime Prosecution
A drug’s schedule dictates federal regulation of the controlled substance. For example, Schedule I drugs are illegal for anything outside of research and scientific use, while Schedule II drugs can be used for specified medical purposes with the DEA’s approval (for example, a prescription license).
Generally speaking, more severely scheduled drugs are more harshly penalized. However, many other factors are taken into account. For example, although methamphetamine and Fentanyl are Schedule II drugs, they are prosecuted more severely than marijuana, which is a Schedule I drug, due to the higher potential for harm to users.
Federal drug scheduling is a complex and often controversial matter. However, it is only one of many factors that are considered for state and federal prosecution of drug crimes.