What Makes a Medication a Controlled Substance?

a doctor holding pills

What makes a medicine a controlled substance? Read to find out | iStock.com

Even if you’re not fully aware of every substance that’s illegal, you’ve heard more than your fair share of issues about drug abuse, arrests, and deaths linked to a substance. While many substance-abuse deaths occur from illegal drugs, there are certain life-saving medications that can severely improve the health and quality of life of its users. However, a strong enough dosage or improper mix with other medications can make these legal drugs deadly as well. You know which drugs are illegal, and you know that over-the-counter pain relievers and cold medicines are totally legal, but you may not realize that some prescription drugs are illegal in some instances, and legal in other cases. Confused yet? Don’t worry — we have the facts so you can fully understand what classifies a drug as a “controlled substance” and what it means for a prescription drug to tow the line of legal or illegal depending how it’s taken and how it’s prescribed.

What is a controlled substance?

First, it’s important to understand what qualifies a substance as a controlled substance. In the United States, most illegal drugs are considered to be controlled substances, as they are generally deemed as bad for the human body and mind and are totally regulated, or “controlled,” by the government. According to FindLaw, state and federal governments typically control these substances so that they do not leak into the public, and someone who possesses a controlled substance can be fined and held in prison.

It’s equally important to understand that not every controlled substance is illegal, and there are many medications that qualify as controlled substances, in that they are completely government-regulated. The Foundations Recovery Network sights the Controlled Substances Act to explain why some medications are controlled substances and some aren’t. In accordance with this act, the government controls some medications that have the potential for abuse, dependency, or risk to your health in an effort to decrease abuse and dependency instances. Though we often consider illegal substances to be the ones that are highly addictive and usually abused, prescribed medication that can be life saving can also be addictive and abused as well, and this act allows these medications to be distributed in a way that is safe and effective for all.

The “Schedules” in the Controlled Substances Act: What do they mean?

man pouring pills into his hand

The Controlled Substances Act dictates what category different medications are in | iStock.com

In the Controlled Substances Act, there are five categories, or “Schedules,” so that people can see where certain substances fall. Schedule I substances are classified as being totally unsafe and having high abuse potential, so they are totally illegal. Schedule II substances also have a high abuse potential and should only be used under extreme circumstance — several pain relievers are on this list. Schedule III substances are not typically as abused, but they can still lead to dependency in users, and they typically have a higher psychological dependency than physical dependency. Tylenol with Codeine and Vicodin fall under this category.

In the last two categories, you’re likely to see substances that either you take, or someone you know takes, as they are legal when prescribed and taken according to the prescription dosage. Schedule IV drugs have a low potential for abuse and include Xanax, Valium, and Soma. Schedule V drugs are the least offensive and least threatening, but they are still government controlled. They include medications like cough syrups that contain small amounts of codeine.

If you are in possession of any of these controlled substances, including Schedule V substances, then you can be punished by law if you do not have a prescription stating that you need to be using these drugs. You cannot manufacture or distribute any of these drugs at any cost, as they are only regulated by the government and are not regulated by you, even if your name is the one on the prescription bottle.

What’s legal and what’s not

Make sure you know your prescription and dosage before taking your medication

Make sure you know your prescription and dosage before taking your medication | iStock.com

Certain controlled substances have the potential to be both legal and illegal depending on how the medication is prescribed and used. If you’ve been given a prescription for a controlled substance and you take it as directed, you’re in the clear. If you have chosen to take more than the recommended dosage or provide your friend with a pill, then this is illegal. In another instance, if you’ve come to acquire a controlled substance without a prescription and the substance is legal for someone with a prescription, then this is also illegal for you. Have the prescription? You’re totally fine as long as you take it as you’re supposed to and don’t supply it to anyone else.

There are certain medications that are controlled substances and legal with a prescription, but they are also dangerously on the rise for recreational usage. Adderall, a medication that helps ADHD patients with their focus and concentration, is commonly found on college campuses, explains WebMD. Many college students have turned to Adderall to help them stay up for long hours and complete assignments, but there’s a reason that medications like Adderall are controlled. They have the potential for addiction because of the “high” that some users receive, which can make Adderall potentially very dangerous for those who don’t need it.

Drugs like Adderall as well as painkillers like OxyContin or Vicodin are known for their dependency and abuse in some users, but they still serve a function and are incredibly helpful for those who need them most, which is why they are medications that are controlled substances and not totally outlawed.

As always, it’s important to take the accurate dosage for any medication, controlled substance or not. Read the directions, talk to your doctor or pharmacist, and be safe no matter what.