Written by Canterbury Law Group

What Is a Controlled Substance?

What Is a Controlled Substance?

When the federal government decides to apply regulations to particular drugs and associated materials they are known under the term “controlled substance.” Some of these substances are perfectly legal to have in your possession if certain criteria are met – for example if they are for medicinal or scientific purposes. It becomes illegal when there is no applicable legal justification, or its use can not be legitimized.

Defining Controlled Substances

The federal government has divided drugs into what it refers to as “schedules” There are five of them – from the most harmful and lethal drugs in Schedule I to the least harmful in Schedule V in that is known as the Controlled Substances Act. The majority of states have chosen to follow this scheme. See: 21 U.S.C. §§ 801 and following for further details.

Defining Illegal Possession Of A Controlled Substance

When an individual has possession of controlled substance or a drug without the authorization or justifiably legal reason for doing so they can be said to be in illegal possession of a substance that is controlled. Frequently this often applies to people who are found to be in possession of drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, or other various narcotics. For someone to be convicted of this, the prosecutor has to prove the defendant knowingly had possession of the controlled substance.

The Knowing Difference

A person must intentionally or knowingly retain control or possession of a drug for the possessing of a controlled substance to be considered a crime. It may be on their body, in a pocket or they may have control as to the whereabouts of the drug, for example, in a bag, a hiding place or one of the compartments of a car. The defendant may face a conviction for possession when the prosecutor establishes proof the defendant had at least some control over the drug. Just because two people who live together in the same residence, does not equal both as being in possession – the person responsible for control has to be established if the other person did not have control over the drug or substance.

Distribution and Sales

It is possible a person who is facing possession charges may also face up with and a charge of “intent to distribute.” This is far more serious situation. The charge is usually based on the quantity of drugs that have been discovered – usually when it exceeds what may be considered reasonable for personal use. Other evidence may be obtained as well to back up this accusation such as materials used for packaging, lists of clients and a large amount of cash.

Drugs And Vehicles

Many cases of possession come from police pulling over people for traffic stops. It is not uncommon for police to suspect and indeed, locate drugs in a car and the driver is then facing a charge of possession. This is especially the case when the driver or passengers are discovered to have drugs on their person. However, the emphasis is on the prosecutor to establish the driver and/or passengers had knowledge of the drugs in the vehicle. It is also frequently the case more than one individual had possession of the drugs and/or controlled substances.


The penalties for possession of drugs and/or controlled substances can vary enormously from state to state or if the charges are federal charges or not. Many factors go into consideration but let’s look in general terms at some of the possible consequences:

  • Fines are very often levied with drug or controlled substance convictions and can vary from less than $100 to more than $100,000 depending on the severity of the situation.
  • Time in jail and prison sentences may also result following a conviction. Again, this can range from just a few days to sentences of greater than ten years.
  • Probational sentences are often consequences in accompaniment to the above and may include rehabilitation treatment as a condition. More than likely the convicted individual will have regular meetings with a probation officer and will have to agree to certain codes and conducts of behavior. It is within the power of a court to revoke an order of probation should the convicted person not meet the terms of their probationary agreement. In such cases, the convicted individual us usually returned to jail or prison for the outstanding duration of their sentence.
  • Diversion programs share some commonality with probation programs but are utilized normally for those who are offenders for the first time. In these programs, the prosecutor permits the offender to take part in a program of behavior modification as well as counseling, often over an extended period of time. Once this has been successfully completed, the prosecutor will consent to drop the charges. Should the offending not complete the terms of the diversion agreement, the prosecutor will then pursue the case against the offender.
  • A drug offender in many states may be offered the opportunity to partake in a rehabilitation course or a program of drug treatment as opposed to a custodial sentence. This may also be a condition when the person is on probation.

Controlled Substance Schedules: Which Drugs Can I Legally Possess?

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970 assigned controlled substances into five categories. While new substances have been added to the list, the categories (or schedules) remain the same. The list is updated annually, so check to see the most updated schedules.


  • Schedule I substances are said to have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and lack an acceptable level of safety for use under medical supervision. This category includes hallucinogens, cannabinoids, heroin, LSD, marijuana, peyote, and ecstasy. Regardless of classification, some of these drugs are used for medical treatment (medical marijuana and opiates). LSD is the subject of legitimate medical research. Peyote has been used by some indigenous peoples of the Americas for millennia, and its use in religious ceremonies is federally protected. However, that protection does not exist under state law in many states.
  • Schedule II substances are said to have a high potential for abuse and usage can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. These substances do have a currently accepted medical use in the United States. Examples include Dilaudid, hydrocodone, Demerol, OxyContin, Percocet, morphine, fentanyl, and codeine.
  • Schedule III substances stimulate the central nervous system but have less potential for abuse. Their use can still lead to moderate or low physical dependence and high psychological dependence. These drugs include amphetamine and methamphetamine, Tylenol with codeine, ketamine, and anabolic steroids.
  • Schedule IV: These substances have a lower potential for abuse than Schedule III drugs. In practice, Schedule III and IV drugs are treated similarly. They can only be obtained by prescription. Schedule IV drugs include Xanax, Soma, Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, Versed, Restoril, and Halcion.
  • Schedule V: These contain limited quantities of narcotics such as cough syrups with codeine. Some of these substances are legally available without a prescription.

Is it Illegal to Possess Scheduled Drugs?

Technically, it is illegal to possess any of the drugs listed on the schedules. There could be a defense, however, if a medical professional prescribed the drug and it was lawfully purchased.

Speak With An Attorney

When you face a possession charge of a drug or controlled substance, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can be of great benefit. They can examine your situation, ensure the proper protocols and procedures were followed by police and can advise you on how best to exercise your rights as well as explaining the possible outcomes of your charges. It many have a great impact on your life and impact your ability to obtain a job, housing or licensing required for your profession.

Source: Theoharis, Mark. “Possession of a Controlled Substance: Drug Possession Laws.” Www.criminaldefenselawyer.com, Nolo, 28 Jan. 2020, www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/crime-penalties/federal/Possession-Controlled-Substance.htm.

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*This information is not intended to be legal advice. Please contact Canterbury Law Group today to learn more about your personal legal needs.

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