The Difference Between an Illegal and a Controlled Substance

November 10, 2015

Syringes filling up prescription bottles

Legal drugs can either be bought over-the-counter or with a prescription from a medical doctor. Illegal drugs cannot legally be manufactured, bought or sold in the United States. And some other drugs are legal in some situations but illegal when abused.

These differences between drugs can be confusing, but the United States government has made efforts to classify drugs in order to clarify the distinctions between their specifics risks and benefits.

Prevalence of Illegal Drug Use in the United States

The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that in the month before the survey, nearly 24 million Americans aged 12 or older, or 9.2 percent of this population, were current illegal drug users. Of these people, almost seven million reported abusing prescription medications. This includes drugs such as methamphetamine that have been made from prescription medications. These figures suggest that many different types of drugs, both legal and illegal, are regularly abused in the US.

The Controlled Substances Act

Since its creation in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) has been used by law enforcement to decrease drug abuse and dependence among Americans by regulating the production, sale, purchase and use of many drugs. This act gives authority to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to monitor and control the use of substances, both legal and illegal.

Because of the many differences between the various types of substances, and between each individual substance, the CSA puts each substance into one of five categories, called Schedules. These categories give each substance a simple classification that helps both law enforcement and the medical community to easily understand its nature.

Drug Schedules

The CSA states that the following factors affect a drug’s schedule:

  • Potential for abuse
  • Scientific information available regarding the drug’s pharmacological effect
  • Scientific understanding of the drug
  • Historical and current patterns of abuse
  • Magnitude of abuse
  • Possible risks to public health
  • Risk of developing psychological or physical dependence

As the DEA explains, Schedule V drugs have the least potential for abuse, while Schedule I drugs are considered to have the highest abuse and dependence potential.

The DEA also lists the following examples for each drug Schedule:

  • Schedule I: heroin, LSD, marijuana and ecstasy
  • Schedule II: Ritalin, Adderall, oxycodone, methadone, cocaine and methamphetamine
  • Schedule III: anabolic steroids, testosterone, ketamine, products with less than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage and products with less than 15 milligrams of hydrocodone per dosage
  • Schedule IV: Xanax, Valium, Ambien, Soma and Ativan
  • Schedule V: cough medications containing less than 200 milligrams of codeine or per 100 milliliters, Lyrica, Motofen and Lomotil

Each of these drugs, along with thousands of others, is classified as a controlled substance, but not all of them are illegal. Some of them only become illegal when a person uses them without a prescription, when she takes more than the recommended dosage or when she mixes them together to alter the drug’s effects.

Most illegal drugs are also controlled substances in the United States, but not all controlled substances are considered illegal. Even legal drugs have potential for abuse and dependence, so it’s necessary for a person to understand that all drugs, both legal and illegal, can be dangerous if misused. If a person has doubts about whether or not a drug is safe, she should consult her doctor before taking the drug.

How to Get More Information About Illegal Versus Controlled Substances

If you are addicted to illegal or controlled substances and need help, we provide treatment options to help you on the path to recovery. Our phone lines are open 24 hours a day and our admissions coordinators are always available to talk with you about any questions you might have about illegal and controlled substances, as well as help you find the right treatment options for you. Give us a call at 615-490-9376.

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