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What is a Controlled Substance?

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP December 28, 2021

If you’ve ever been arrested for possession of a controlled substance or stopped by law enforcement for suspicion of being in possession of a controlled substance, you might have wondered what exactly is a controlled substance? Is it any type of illegal substance? What if it’s prescribed and you possess it illegally – is it still controlled? It’s important to understand what a controlled substance is and the laws surrounding the possession and distribution of them so you don’t inadvertently find yourself in trouble with the law. 

A controlled substance is typically defined as a substance that is regulated or controlled by the government because it has a high probability of addiction, abuse, or dependence. For these reasons, the government deems it necessary to control and regulate the substance as a way to protect the general public from the dangerous effects the substances can have on people and communities. 

It’s not always illegal to possess a controlled substance

While some controlled substances are illegal, not all of them are. For example, prescription opioids are considered controlled substances, but when prescribed legally by a doctor and taken as recommended, there may be nothing illegal at all about that behavior. 

Different schedules of controlled substances

Within the category of controlled substances, there are subcategories that determine which substances are the most dangerous and which you can be punished the most harshly for possessing. The schedules of controlled substances include the following:

  • Schedule I – substances that have no accepted medical use and are unsafe. They have a high potential for abuse. Examples are heroin, LSD, and marijuana. 
  • Schedule II – these include narcotics and stimulants that have a high likelihood of abuse and dependence. Examples include Dialudid, methadone, hydrocodone, Adderall, Percocet, cocaine, and morphine.
  • Schedule III – these are substances that can lead to physical and psychological dependence but have less potential for abuse than the schedule I and II substances. Examples include Tylenol with Codeine, Suboxone, and ketamine.
  • Schedule IV – these substances have a lower potential for abuse, but there is still the possibility for abuse and dependence. Examples include most benzodiazepines, as well as Restoril and Halcion. 
  • Schedule V – this category usually includes codeine that is mixed a with other medications, such as cough syrup.

Interestingly, marijuana has been made widely available for medicinal purposes, so it’s possible that it will soon be removed from the list of Schedule I substances. However, it’s important to understand that federally, marijuana is still illegal and is classified as a Schedule I substance. This federal law trumps all state laws, so it’s still possible to be arrested for possession of marijuana. Some states of course have decriminalized the possession and use of marijuana, but this wouldn’t prevent the federal government from prosecuting these cases if they wanted to. 

Contact an attorney for assistance

If you were arrested for possession of a controlled substance or have any questions about the legality of controlled substances, consider contacting a Boulder criminal defense attorney right away. All criminal offenses should be taken seriously.