Guide to U.S. Drug Laws
Federal drug laws, including the Controlled Substances Act, regulate the possession, trafficking, and manufacturing of drugs.
Even though states have their own laws on drugs, federal laws supersede state laws—including those regarding the medical/recreational use of marijuana. No federal laws regulate drug testing for private companies, but certain laws provide protections for workers.
Federal Drug Laws
Federal drug laws exist to control the use, manufacturing, possession, and distribution of various drugs that are legal and illegal.1
Federal agencies collaborate with both state and local law enforcement to ensure effective controls over substances that are deemed to be a danger to individuals and to society. Federal agents focus mainly on trafficking, but state agencies make most arrests for drug offenses, and many of these arrests are for possession.1
Each state has its own drug laws and regulations, but the Controlled Substances Act allows Feds to enforce federal drug laws in any jurisdiction regardless of the laws of any state.1
Controlled Substances Act
President Richard Nixon sought greater federal control over drugs in the early 1970s. During his presidency, the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 was passed.1 One aspect of this law was the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which allowed federal jurisdiction over specific plants, drugs, and chemical substances. It established a classification or scheduling system for drugs.1
The CSA considers a variety of factors when placing drugs in control categories, including the following: 4
- The potential for abuse, whether actual or relative
- Scientific evidence about the drug’s pharmacologic effects
- All scientific knowledge about the drug
- The history of the drug and any information about patterns of abuse
- How widespread the abuse of the drug is
- Public health risks
- How likely the drug is to cause either physical or psychological dependence
- If the substance is part of the process to make another controlled drug
Drugs are then categorized into 1 of 5 schedules:4
- Schedule I drugs have a high potential for misuse, no accepted medical treatment in the United States, and a lack of safety even if they were to be supervised by a medical professional. Heroin, GHB, LSD, Quaaludes, and marijuana are examples of Schedule I drugs.
- Schedule II drugs have a high potential for misuse and addiction, but they can be used in the United States with strict controls. Cocaine, PCP (phencyclidine), methamphetamine, and opioids such as methadone, fentanyl, morphine, and hydrocodone are Schedule II substances.
- Schedule III drugs have a lower potential for misuse than Schedule I or II drugs, are accepted as part of medical treatment, and their abuse can lead to severe psychological dependence and/or mild to moderate physical dependence. These drugs include codeine medications with aspirin or acetaminophen, anabolic steroids, and some barbiturates.
- Schedule IV drugs have a lower potential for misuse and psychological or physical dependence than those listed above and are currently accepted in medical use. They include the painkiller tramadol (Ultram) as well as benzodiazepines such as alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and diazepam (Valium).
- Schedule V drugs have an even lower potential for abuse or dependence, are accepted as legitimate medical treatments, and include cough medicines containing codeine.
Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 allowed the CSA to include substances similar to controlled substances (such as synthetic drugs) as Schedule I drugs. It also established mandatory minimum sentencing laws for federal drug trafficking, depending on the substance and amount in question.
This act also addressed the differences between powdered and crack cocaine. For example, a person had to be caught with 100 times more powdered cocaine than crack cocaine to receive the more severe minimum sentence (the ratio was later reduced from 100:1 to 18:1 in 2010).1
The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 was enacted to reduce the availability and demand of drugs.1 This act created the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the position of drug czar (director of National Drug Control Policy).1 It put in place criminal penalties for violations of the CSA on federal lands and also implemented mandatory minimum sentences for minors involved in drug offenses.1 Finally, the act also created the Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act (CDTA) to reduce the availability of chemicals used to make illegal drugs.1
The new mandatory minimum sentencing laws created a rise in prison populations due to drug charges. About half of the federal prison population is serving time for drug offenses. The vast majority of this group was involved in drug trafficking (96%), while only 0.8% were serving time for possession in 2013.1
The charge of possession can be broken into 2 categories: simple possession and possession with the intent to distribute.
- Simple possession occurs when a person is caught with a small amount of an illegal substance for personal use.5 Under federal law, simple possession is a misdemeanor that can carry a sentence of up to a year in jail and/or a fine of at least $1,000, while state penalties can vary widely.2, 5 Drug paraphernalia can be illegal as well and lead to a possession charge if the paraphernalia has residue of the drug, such as in a pipe or syringe, or was sold explicitly for drug use.6
- Possession with intent to distribute occurs when a person is caught with a larger quantity that is broken into smaller bags, and they may have a scale or large amounts of cash. This offense carries heavier consequences.2, 6
Trafficking or Distribution
Drug trafficking and distribution laws set penalties for the transportation, sale, or smuggling of drugs. This term also applies to the illegal distribution of prescription drugs.7
Trafficking is a felony, and the penalties depend on the substance or substances, amount of drugs involved, where the drugs are distributed, where the arrest occurs, and if drugs were distributed to minors.7
- Federal minimum trafficking penalties for powdered cocaine involving 500-4,999 grams are 5-40 years in prison with a fine of up to $5 million.2,3
- Trafficking between 1-9 grams of LSD (acid), 5-49 grams of pure methamphetamine, 50-499 grams of a methamphetamine mixture, and 100-999 grams of a heroin mixture carry the same penalties as cocaine.2,3
- Second offense penalties for these drugs range between 10 years and life in prison, with a fine of up to $8 million.2,3
- Penalties for trafficking less than 50 kilograms of marijuana include a prison sentence of up to 5 years and a fine of up to $250,000 for a first offense. A second offense carries up to 10 years and a $500,000 fine.2,3
- Trafficking between 50-99 kilograms of marijuana can carry up to 20 years in prison or $1 million for a first offense.2,3
- Larger quantities carry stiffer punishments.2,3
Manufacturing refers to involvement of any step of producing an illicit drug, such as sales of chemicals used to make drugs or equipment used to produce drugs, or assisting in the production process.8
Growing marijuana is considered manufacturing, along with production of methamphetamine.8 A person caught with 1-49 marijuana plants can face up to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. A person caught with over 1,000 plants can face between 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $10 million, for first offenses.2, 3
Manufacturing illegal drugs near schools or playgrounds can lead to double fines and sentences.8
Federal laws consider marijuana to be a Schedule I drug, with penalties for the possession, distribution, growth, or sale of marijuana. However, various states have established laws and regulations for medicinal and even recreational use of marijuana.1
When it comes to marijuana, federal law enforcement agencies have traditionally targeted criminal networks instead of individuals.1 However, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a legalization opponent, has taken steps to remove protection for growers, sellers, and users of medical marijuana.9 He has been quoted as saying that “legalization results in greater use” and that “federal law remains in effect.”17
Medical marijuana is legalized in the following states:10
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- West Virginia
States that have legalized recreational marijuana include:10
- District of Columbia.
The use of medical or recreational marijuana differs between states as well. California, for example, doesn’t list specific medical conditions that warrant medical marijuana, while other states, such as Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, will only allow individuals with severe epilepsy or other debilitating conditions to be approved for medical marijuana.10
States such as California or Colorado are also open to recreational use, while more conservative states tend to look unfavorably on marijuana use in any form.10
State Drug Laws
Each state has individual laws regarding drug offenses, and these laws can be very different. States each have their own statutory authorities, scheduling bodies, and controlled substance acts, though federal agencies can take over jurisdiction at any time.1,11
Most drug offenses are handled at the state level. In 2012, the DEA made just over 30,000 arrests for drug charges, while state and local police made over 1.3 million arrests for drug offenses.1
Various federal agencies, including the DEA, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), US Marshals Service (USMS), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), US Postal Inspection Service, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) cooperate with state and local agents to reduce drug use and distribution across the country.1
The consequences of drug possession can vary widely between states.
- In Illinois, possession of under 2.5 grams of marijuana can have a fine of up to $1,500 and/or a jail sentence of up to 30 days. Possession of between 2.5-10 grams can have the same fine with a jail sentence of up to 6 months, while getting caught with 15-100 grams of heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine can lead to a felony charge with between 4-15 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $200,000.12
- In Massachusetts, possession of an ounce (18 grams) or less of marijuana is punished with a $100 fine and seizure of the drugs.13
- In Texas, possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and/or up to 180 days in jail, between 2-4 ounces can have consequences of up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $4,000, and possession of between 4 ounces and 5 pounds of marijuana can lead to between 180 days to two years in state jail and a fine of up to $10,000.14
Workplace and Drug Testing Laws
A number of federal requirements surround workplace drug testing. Private employers do not need a policy to ensure drug-free workplaces, with the exception of federal contractors and companies in safety or security-sensitive industries.15,16
There are 2 categories of federal laws regarding substance use in the workplace: those aimed at substance use in the workplace and those that protect the civil rights of employees. The second type involves various legal acts and guidelines, including: 15
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 – This law prevents companies with more than 15 employees from discriminating against applicants or employees based on a history of substance use or attendance in substance use treatment. This law also ensures that companies cannot drug test employees simply for acting or appearing as though they are under the influence of any substance, since physical symptoms or behavior can be attributed to physical or mental health issues. Asking whether someone takes legal prescription medication is also prohibited during pre-hire drug screening.
- Civil Rights Act (CRA) of 1964 – The CRA ensures that private companies with at least 15 employees are not discriminating against employees or potential employees based on race, gender, religion, or ethnicity, by targeting specific individuals for drug testing.
- Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 – This law pertains to all public employers and private companies with more than 50 employees. FMLA also ensures that any employee who has been employed for at least a year and has clocked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the last year can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to seek treatment for substance use or a physical condition related to substance use, or care for a close family member seeking treatment for substance abuse or a medical condition due to substance use. They are assured that they can return to the same (or a similar) position.
- National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 – The NLRA concerns employees that are in a union. It ensures that any program set up for drug testing employees must be negotiated and agreed upon through the union. It also mandates that the employer and the union must be clear about when testing will be done, along with the penalties in place for employees who test positive for any drugs or alcohol.
No federal law directly oversees drug testing in the workplace.16 Different states have developed their own guidelines on drug testing. For example, some states require the employer to have reasonable suspicion or probable cause before drug testing, though this policy can violate the ADA.15,16 Other states allow random drug testing only under specific circumstances, while there may be restrictions only on public employers rather than on private companies.16
Some examples of state policies include:16
- Arizona: Private companies, all school districts, and transportation companies that service school districts are subject to drug testing. Applicants and employees must be provided with written disclosure about the drug testing policy for it to be valid, and any transportation employee can be drug tested in the event of an accident or probable cause.
- Idaho: All employers can conduct drug testing on applicants. Employees must receive a notice of drug testing that lists what type of test will be conducted and that violation or refusal to be tested can lead to misconduct discharge and denial of unemployment benefits.
- Maryland: All employers can conduct drug testing on any and all applicants and can drug test employees only if they can provide a valid business reason.
- Sacco, L.N. (2014). Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends.
- Seattle Pacific University. (n.d.). Summary of Federal and State Drug Laws.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). Federal Trafficking Penalties.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of Abuse: A DEA Resource Guide.
- United States Sentencing Commission. (2015). Weighing the Charges: Simple Possession of Drugs in the Federal Criminal Justice System.
- Thomson Reuters. (2015). Drug possession overview.
- Thomson Reuters. (2017). Drug trafficking/distribution.
- Thomson Reuters. (2017). Drug manufacturing and cultivation.
- Los Angeles Times. (2017). Trump and Sessions are ignoring voters’ overwhelming support for medical marijuana. Will Congress listen?
- National Conference of State Legislatures. (2017). State Medical Marijuana Laws.
- United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.). The Controlled Substances Act.
- Illinois Wesleyan University. (n.d.). Illinois Drug Laws.
- Boston University. (n.d.). Illegal Drugs and Alcohol.
- Southern Methodist University. (n.d.). Texas State Law and Penalties for Controlled Substances.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Federal Laws and Regulations.
- American Civil Liberties Union. (2000). State-by-state Workplace Drug Testing Laws.
- Angell, T. (2017). Jeff Sessions Slams Marijuana Legalization (Again). Forbes.