Controlled Substances Act and Drug Scheduling

The federal US drug policy is overseen by the CSA (Controlled Substances Act), which regulates the importation, distribution, possession, use, and manufacture of certain specified substances. The CSA was initially introduced under the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 (Title II) by the 91st United States Congress. The CSA was also the national implementing legislation for the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

The CSA provides for five Schedules, with each classifying various substances into distinct groups. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are responsible for determining which substances should be removed or added to each schedule.

At various points in time, the US Congress has also rescheduled some substances via legislation. For instance, in 2000, gamma hydroxybutyrate was classified as a Schedule I substance by the Hillory J. Farias and Samantha Reid Date-Rape Drug Prohibition Act.

The classification of a drug is often based on certain criteria, such as the substance’s potential for abuse and addiction, as well as if it possesses any currently accepted medical use.

The Controlled Substances Act Explained

Removing or placing a drug or substance under a specific Schedule is typically carried out according to the provisions of 21 USC §§ 801, 801a, as well as 802, 813, 814, 811, and 812. The potential for abuse of a substance has to be specified and verified before it can be placed under a schedule. However, the way in which a drug/substance is classified (and what it is classified under) is often a source of controversy. The purpose and effectiveness of the CSA have been called into question on several occasions since its inception.

‘Controlled substances’ can generally be described as a term referring to any drug, substance, or immediate precursor that is listed and classified under Schedule I, II, III, IV or V of the CSA. Wines, distilled spirits, tobacco, or malt beverages are not listed and therefore not considered to be controlled substances. The exemption of alcohol and tobacco from the list of controlled substances has raised many eyebrows over the years, especially considering that both are the most consumed drugs in the US.

The CSA possesses two subchapters: Subchapter I outlines Schedules I to V and lists the chemicals applied in the manufacturing of the listed controlled substances. It also spells out the difference between unlawful and lawful distribution, manufacturing, and possession of controlled substances. This includes the possession of drugs under Schedule I for personal usage. Subchapter I also discusses the penalties, such as fines and prison terms for using, distributing, or manufacturing controlled substances contrary to the Schedule.

Subchapter II, on the other hand, outlines the laws that cover the importation and exportation of controlled substances. It also specifies the fines and prison terms that will be incurred if the provisions of the schedule are breached.

Substances covered

The substances covered by the CSA vary. Aside from looking at the list of those covered, you can also determine what substances are covered by the CSA by simply considering if it possesses the following factors, as stated under Section 201 (c) of the CSA.

  • If any current scientific knowledge concerning the substance is available.
  • The substance’s relative or actual potential for abuse.
  • The duration, scope, and significance of abuse.
  • Known scientific evidence of the pharmacological effects of the substance
  • History and current pattern of abuse of the substance
  • If the substance poses any risk to the general public’s health
  • The physiological or psychological dependence liability of the substance
  • If the substance is a direct precursor of any already controlled under this subchapter.

The Federal Drug Scheduling System Explained

The drug scheduling system classifies substances according to their potential abuse if the drug has any medical value, as well as various other factors. Controlled substances are classified under Schedules I to V to indicate their potential for abuse and if they pose a health risk to society at large. A cursory glance at the provisions of each schedule will provide a better understanding of how the federal drug scheduling system works.

Schedule I Controlled Substances

Substances under this classification are those with the following characteristics:

  • Possess a high potential for abuse
  • The substance or drug currently has no recognised medical use in the US
  • The drug or substance cannot be used safely, even with medical supervision

Schedule I substances are subject to production quotas imposed by the DEA. No drug under this schedule can be prescribed for treatment. According to the DEA, a drug doesn’t necessarily have to possess the abuse potential of heroin before it is deemed suitable for classification under Schedule I.

Some drugs listed under Schedule I include:

  • αMT (alpha-methyltryptamine)
  • BZP (benzylpiperazine)
  • Cathinone
  • DMT (dimethyltryptamine)
  • Etorphine
  • GHB
  • Heroin (diacetylmorphine)
  • Ibogaine
  • LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide)
  • Marijuana and its cannabinoids
  • MDMA or Ecstasy
  • Mescaline
  • Methaqualone (Quaalude, Sopor, Mandrax)
  • Peyote (Lophophora williamsii)
  • Psilocybin and psilocin
  • Controlled substance analogues that are intended for human consumption, as defined by the FAA (Federal Analog Act).

Schedule II Controlled Substances

Schedule II controlled substances can be described as those with the following features:

  • A drug or substance that currently has accepted medical uses in the US, but with severe restrictions
  • A drug or other substance that has a high risk of abuse
  • Abusing the drug or substance can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.

These types of drugs can only be legally acquired by a non-medical practitioner with a prescription, except in certain emergency situations that are prescribed by the Secretary after consultation with the Attorney General.

The drugs covered under this schedule vary in potency, with some being more addictive than others. For instance, fentanyl is roughly 80 times more potent than morphine, while heroin is only about twice as potent.

Some substances under this schedule include:

  • Nabilone (Cesamet)
  • Opium tincture (Laudanum)
  • Oxycodone (semi-synthetic opioid; active ingredient in Percocet, OxyContin, and Percodan)
  • Oxymorphone (semi-synthetic opioid; active ingredient in Opana)
  • Nembutal (Pentobarbital)
  • Pethidine
  • Phencyclidine (PCP)
  • Secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Amphetamine drugs such as Adderall, Dextroamphetamine, and Lisdexamfetamine (Vyvanse)
  • Tapentadol (Nucynta)
  • Barbiturates (short-acting)
  • Cocaine
  • Codeine (pure)
  • Diphenoxylate (pure)
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone in any formulation (as of October 2014), such as Vicodin and Norco
  • Hydromorphone
  • Methadone
  • Methamphetamine
  • Methylphenidate
  • Morphine

Schedule III Controlled Substances

Schedule III controlled substances typically possess the following:

  • Abuse of such substances can lead to high psychological dependence or moderate or low physical dependence.
  • The substance has a potential for abuse less than those listed under Schedules I and II.
  • The drug or other substance is accepted for medical use in the United States.

According to the provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, substances under this schedule can’t be legally obtained or dispensed without a written or oral prescription. Also, such prescriptions cannot be renewed more than five times or refilled more than six months after it was initially dispensed. Drugs in this schedule include:

  • Anabolic steroids
  • Intermediate-acting barbiturates
  • Fast-acting barbiturates such as secobarbital (Seconal)
  • Buprenorphine (semi-synthetic opioid; active in Suboxone, Subutex)
  • Dihydrocodeine, when mixed to a certain dosage and concentration with other substances
  • Ketamine
  • Xyrem
  • Marinol
  • Paregoric
  • Phendimetrazine Tartrate
  • Benzphetamine HCl (Didrex)
  • Ergine (lysergic acid amide)

Schedule IV Controlled Substances

Substances under this category possess the following:

  • Compared to Schedule III substances, those under Schedule IV possess a lower potential for abuse
  • The drug is currently accepted for medical use in the United States
  • Compared to Schedule III substances, abusing Schedule IV substances may lead to limited physical or psychological dependence

Control measures are similar to Schedule III. Some of the drugs in this schedule include:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Chloral hydrate
  • Pentazocine (Talwin) and some other partial agonist opioid analgesics
  • The eugeroic drug Modafinil and its (R)-enantiomer armodafinil
  • Difenoxin (an antidiarrhoeal drug)
  • Long-acting barbiturates, such as phenobarbital
  • Tramadol (Ultram)
  • Carisoprodol (Soma)
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Schedule V Controlled Substances

Schedule V substances are those with the following characteristics:

  • The drug has a currently accepted medical use in the US
  • The substance has a low potential for abuse in comparison to those listed under schedule IV
  • Physical or psychological dependence (that’s limited to the drugs or other substances listed under Schedule IV) can occur

Drugs and substances under this schedule also require a prescription – both for initial dispense and subsequent renewals. Drugs in this schedule include:

  • Pyrovalerone
  • Preparations containing small amounts of opium or diphenoxylate
  • Cough suppressants containing small amounts of codeine
  • Anticonvulsants like lacosamide (Vimpat), pregabalin (Lyrica), and retigabine (ezogabine)
  • Some centrally-acting antidiarrhoeals like diphenoxylate (Lomotil) with atropine

Misuse of Drugs Act

The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is a UK Act of Parliament that represents the country’s commitment to international obligations and treaties under the United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.

Offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act include:

  • Unlawful possession of a controlled drug
  • Unlawful possession of a controlled drug with intention of selling (or otherwise supplying it)
  • Offering to supply a controlled drug (even for free)
  • Allowing your premises/property – be it residential or commercial – to be used for the unlawful purpose of supplying or producing controlled drugs

The Act makes provisions for three classes of controlled substances. Said classifications are Class A, B, and C. The Act also prescribes a range of penalties for the unlicensed or illegal possession (or possession with intent to supply) of controlled substances within each class.

Substances listed under each class can be amended by the order of the Home Secretary, who can list new drugs, upgrade or downgrade, as well as delist an already listed controlled substance. This can also be accomplished by passing an Act through both Houses of Parliament, though it’s a more tedious process.

Drugs and Substances under International Control

The following types of drugs and substances are listed as controlled substances under the INCB Green List:

  • Phenethylamine psychedelics
  • Tryptamine psychedelics
  • Synthetic cannabinoids
  • Isomers of natural tetrahydrocannabinol
  • Dissociatives
  • Ergolines (LSD)
  • Phenethylamine psychedelics
  • Natural cannabinols
  • Depressants (qualones)
  • Dissociatives
  • Depressants (other)
  • Semisynthetic agonist (antagonist opioids)
  • Synthetic agonist (antagonist opioids/benzomorphans)
  • Stimulants
  • Depressants (barbiturates)
  • Depressants (benzodiazepines)
  • Depressants (carbamates)
  • Depressants (other)
  • Drugs with both stimulant and opioid effects
  • Cannabis
  • Coca leaf, cocaine and ecgonine

Substances Controlled by the European Union

There is no unified structure valid throughout the whole European Union. However, there is a unified classification, although many countries have personal legislation. EU Member States classify drugs and precursors in accordance with the three UN Conventions of 1961, 1971 and 1988 where about 250 substances are separated into various schedules.

Should Marijuana Be Removed from the Controlled Substances Act?

By June 2016, 25 US states (including Washington D.C) had legalised the use of medical marijuana amongst the general populace. Since the initial passing of the CSA, cannabis has been classified as a Schedule I substance, which is odd considering the available evidence indicating that it isn’t addictive and can be useful for medical purposes. The inappropriate labelling of marijuana has caused a lot of problems for people who require it for treatment, as well as individuals who have been needlessly punished for using/distributing the plant. Since marijuana has already been proven beyond doubt to be safe for human consumption (which is why so many states in the US have legalised it), having the plant completely taken off the Controlled Substances Act might be a smart and even long overdue move.

Removing marijuana from the CSA would not only make lives easier for many people, it could also provide several companies with an avenue to better understand the full potential of this natural product. This includes both its possible social and physical benefits in improving the lives of people who require it for medical purposes.

There has been much agitation over the years for the legalisation of marijuana in the US and the movement has made a lot of headway in recent years. De-scheduling marijuana completely will pave the way for new federal cannabis regulations that are similar to what’s in place for alcohol and tobacco, making life easier for everyone involved.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does the US classify illicit drugs like marijuana?

In the US, marijuana is generally classified as a Schedule I substance. This implies that the US government considers marijuana to be a drug with a high potential for abuse, with no recognised medical use. However, in many states, including Washington DC, the position concerning marijuana has changed, with several states downgrading it to a Schedule II drug. Other states, such as California, Alaska and Colorado have completely legalised (with limitations) the substance.

Does the federal government really consider marijuana more dangerous than cocaine?

The federal government’s refusal to take marijuana off the schedule of controlled substances implies that they believe marijuana to be dangerous. However, the federal government’s ownership of numerous patents on cannabinoids is a clear sign that they also believe in the medical potential of marijuana.

Why does a drug’s schedule matter?

This is important because it restricts access to drugs and other substances that are on the Schedule. Also, owning, making use of, or distributing any of the substances on the Schedule without proper authorisation can make you liable to pay a fine or even serve a prison sentence. The upside of the Schedule is that the general public is protected against the risks of uncontrolled circulation of dangerous and highly addictive substances, such as opioids.

What does it take to reschedule a drug?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are responsible for determining what substances should be removed or added from the various schedules, even though the statute that created the initial listing (and governs the process) was initially passed by Congress.

Congress can also pass a law that restricts or changes a drug’s schedule.

Can a drug be unscheduled?

Yes. It is possible, but the process is more difficult and complicated than rescheduling a substance. One of the biggest challenges is that posed by international treaties (of which the US is a part) and requires certain substances such as marijuana to remain within the scheduling system.

Why is marijuana still a Schedule I substance?

The Schedule I status of marijuana has been maintained over the years due to insufficient scientific evidence concerning its medical value.

Is there an alternative to the scheduling system?

There have been recommendations for a new scheduling system that only focuses on a substance’s potential for abuse, without considering its medical value.

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