How Drugs Are Scheduled in the U.S.

Many substances that have an effect on the mind or body are carefully regulated in the United States. In modern times, the vehicle for this regulation is the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Among other things, this act established five classifications, called “Schedules,” for drugs in the country. Drugs are placed in different Schedules depending on the danger they present to users, compared to the potential medical benefits that they can provide.

Homeopathic remedies can fall under the DEA’s drug Schedules, or may be excluded entirely. Because homeopathic remedies aren’t officially recognized as medicine, they are not always regulated the same way other drugs would be.

The Controlled Substances Act

Prior to 1970, addictive drugs were regulated by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This act of congress established the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a consumer protection agency, tasked with enforcing standards for food and medicine to keep dangerous food and drug items out of the hands of consumers. As part of the Pure Food and Drug Act, drug labels were required to list substances considered by the government to be “addictive” or “dangerous.”

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in order to give the government more power and flexibility when it came to the regulation of potentially addictive and dangerous substances in the United States. The Controlled Substances Act did two main things:

  • It established five Schedules for the classification of drugs in the United States, laying out criteria for each Schedule and establishing guidelines for the proper handling and use of drugs that fell under each Schedule.
  • With regard to international trade, the act put laws in place about the importing and exporting of controlled substances.

The provisions of the Controlled Substances Act are enforced by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which was established in 1973. However, other government agencies are involved in determining the classification for a particular drug, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the FDA, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The Five Drug Schedules

In passing the Controlled Substances Act, congress recognized that not all dangerous or addictive substances are equal. In addition, some drugs that had the potential to be dangerous if misused or taken in large quantities also had legitimate medical applications, which could benefit millions of Americans. For this reason, the Controlled Substances Act recognized five Schedules according to which drugs could be classified. These Schedules proceed in descending order from least dangerous with the greatest medical application, to most dangerous with the least medical application.

Schedule V

A drug may be classified under Schedule V if:

  • The drug has a low potential for abuse.
  • The drug has a currently accepted medical use in the United States.
  • Abuse of the drug may lead to limited physical or psychological dependence (i.e. addiction).

Some well-known Schedule V drugs include small amounts of Codeine, a painkiller used to treat coughing; Pyrovalerone, a stimulant that is sometimes used to treat fatigue; and Cannabidiol, a cannabis derivative that is marketed as Epidiolex.

Schedule IV

A drug may be classified under Schedule IV if:

  • The drug has a low potential for abuse, but greater than that of Schedule V drugs.
  • The drug has a currently accepted medical use in the United States.
  • Abuse of the drug may lead to limited physical or psychological dependence, but is potentially more addictive than Schedule V drugs.

Some well-known Schedule IV drugs include Xanax, which is used to treat anxiety disorders; Valium, which treats anxiety and seizures; and Restoril, a sleeping aid that is sometimes used to treat insomnia.

Schedule III

A drug may be classified under Schedule III if:

  • The drug has potential for abuse, but less so than Schedule I and II drugs.
  • The drug has a currently accepted medical use in the United States.
  • Abuse of the drug may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependance.

Some well-known Schedule III drugs include Vicodin, a drug commonly used to treat pain; higher doses of Codeine, and anabolic steroids like Testosterone. Caffeine, a naturally-occuring substance found in coffee and most teas, is also a Schedule III substance.

Schedule II

A drug may be classified under Schedule II if:

  • The drug has a high potential for abuse.
  • The drug has a currently accepted medical use in the United states or has a currently accepted medical use under certain extremely limited conditions.
  • Abuse of the drug may lead to severe physical or psychological dependance.

Some well-known Schedule II drugs include OxyContin and Percocet, two very powerful painkillers; Morphine, a painkiller sometimes used in hospital settings; and Adderall, a stimulant sometimes used to treat ADHD.

Schedule I

A drug may be classified under Schedule I if:

  • The drug has a high potential for abuse.
  • The drug has no currently accepted medical use in the United States.
  • Usage of the drug is unsafe.

Some well-known Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, and marijuana.

As you can see, Schedules V through II drugs are acceptable for use in some cases. In fact, many of them are prescribed by doctors and used in hospitals. However, Schedule I drugs are universally banned, may not be prescribed by doctors, and should not be possessed by any consumer for any reasons.

Differences in State and Federal Law

You may have noticed that marijuana is a Schedule I drug at the federal level. Yet, many states have passed laws legalizing the use of marijuana, either for medical or recreational use. While marijuana remained a Schedule I drug according to the DEA, the Obama administration issued guidelines saying that they would not pursue criminal action against marijuana users in states where the substance has been legalized. However, federal law does have priority over state laws so, if the federal government chose to, it could enforce Schedule I restrictions on drugs that are legalized in certain states.

The difference between federal and state laws about controlled substances can run both ways, though. The states of Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia have all passed laws banning kratom, a plant that is gaining popularity in the United States.

However, while the drug is banned in those states and the cities of Denver, San Diego, and Sarasota, there is no federal level ban. This means that consumers are free to buy kratom in other states from a reputable kratom supplier.

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