What Is Drug & Alcohol Law?
Federal drug scheduling and potential charges
on February 10, 2020
Updated on April 6, 2022
The federal government passes laws that regulate controlled substances in the United States. States can also set their own regulations, but sometimes those local laws and ordinances conflict with federal laws. Because of this conflict, penalties for drug and alcohol violations can vary depending on whether you are charged with a federal or state offense.
The following is a brief overview of the federal drug scheduling and potential charges that can accompany the violation of these laws. You may find it helpful to speak with a lawyer about your charges because they carry criminal penalties.
Drug and Alcohol Law – What You Need to Know
- Violating drug and alcohol laws can lead to significant legal jeopardy.
- The federal government creates drug and alcohol laws.
- State and local governments also make their own laws that sometimes conflict with the federal ones.
- These cases can be complicated because of the combination of state and federal laws, but an experienced criminal lawyer will know how to navigate these laws.
An Overview of Drug and Alcohol Law
Substance abuse is an issue that can often lead to legal trouble. Such substances include alcoholic beverages as well as legal and illegal drugs. There are many laws around drug and alcohol use and violating these rules can lead to encounters with law enforcement and significant sanctions or disciplinary action later on. Here are some examples of penalties a court can enforce for violating drug or alcohol policy:
- Revocation of driver's license
- Drug testing
- Education programs
- Treatment programs
- Community Service
- Jail time
The government regulates both legal and illegal drugs. What constitutes unlawful use of drugs and the consequences you can face will vary depending on the substance's schedule. Even if you possess medications legally, you may face consequences if you illegally use them. Here are some circumstances where one's actions can run afoul of United States drug and alcohol law:
- Underage consumption of alcohol or serving alcohol to someone underage
- Operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcoholic beverages
- Illegal use of prescription drugs such as taking unprescribed medications
- Possession of drug paraphernalia such as methamphetamine pipes
- Use of illicit drugs such as amphetamines or LSD
See the "Potential Violations" section for more information around common drug and alcohol crimes and their penalties.
Federal laws assign drugs to control categories called "schedules," per the Controlled Substances Act. The Drug Enforcement Administration is tasked with enforcing the Act and schedules substances based on:
- The drug's actual or potential for abuse
- Scientific evidence of the drug's medical effect
- The state of current scientific knowledge about the drug
- The history and pattern of abuse
- Any risks to public health
- The extent to which the drug is addictive or habit-forming
- Whether the substance is a precursor to another controlled substance
Currently, the federal government cites five "schedules," or categories, under the Controlled Substances Act:
- Schedule I: These substances have a high potential for drug abuse, and there is no currently accepted medical use in the U.S.
- Schedule II: These drugs have a high potential for abuse and have an accepted medical use, sometimes with restrictions. Misuse of these drugs may lead to severe dependence.
- Schedule III: Abuse of these drugs can lead to moderate or low physical dependence but high psychological dependence.
- Schedule IV: These substances have currently accepted medical uses and have a low potential for abuse or dependence.
- Schedule V: These substances have limited risk for abuse or dependence and have currently accepted medical uses.
What constitutes a drug or alcohol violation can vary by state, and the consequences often vary by level of intoxication and/or schedule of the controlled substance. Common violations include driving under the influence, possession, and distribution.
- DUI: A DUI charge can accompany driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. It is common to be subject to jail time, fines, probation, or driver's license suspension.
- Possession: If you are caught with an illegal substance or drug paraphernalia, you may be charged with possession of a controlled substance. Depending on the amount you possess, you may be charged with possession with intent to distribute, which often carries heavier penalties.
- Distribution: These charges can flow from the transportation or sale of illegal drugs. They can also attach if you distribute prescription drugs—even if you were legally prescribed the medication. The penalties for distribution can vary depending on the drug in question and the amount distributed.
Below are some common questions you might want to consider when meeting with an attorney for the first time.
- What makes a drug charge a felony?
- What would happen if I was following state law but not federal law?
- How long with my drug charges stay on my record?
- What counts as drug trafficking?
Finding the Right Attorney for Your Needs
It is crucial to approach the right type of attorney—someone who can help you through your entire case. To do so, you can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location.
Should I Talk to a Lawyer?
Drug and alcohol violations can carry criminal penalties, so it's essential to work with someone who knows the law and can protect your rights. A lawyer can help you obtain the results of any drug or alcohol testing, interview the officer who conducted the tests or arrested you and challenge the results and your arrest. These cases can be complicated because of the combination of state and federal laws, and your lawyer will know how to navigate the law.
A lawyer will anticipate potential problems with your case and advise you on how to approach them. Your lawyer will also keep track of deadlines and file all the paperwork with the necessary courts and agencies, giving you one less thing to worry about.
Why Super Lawyers?
Super Lawyers is a rating service of outstanding lawyers from more than 70 practice areas who have attained a high degree of peer recognition and professional achievement. The patented selection process includes independent research, peer nominations, and peer evaluations. The objective is to create a credible, comprehensive, and diverse listing of outstanding attorneys that can be used as a resource for attorneys and consumers searching for legal counsel.
As Super Lawyers is intended to be used to select a lawyer, we limit the lawyer ratings to those who can be hired and retained by the public. You can learn more about the selection process here.