By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.
How the Federal government regulates who gets which drug.
Here in the United States, the federal government regulates the status of drugs, who gets which drugs and how based on their listing on one of five “drug schedules.” These schedules were created by the “Controlled Substance Act of 1970.”
This act separates drugs into schedules based on their potential for addiction, their acceptance for medical treatment and their safety. Prior to 1906, the U. S. had almost no laws regulating drug use or sales. Beginning with the Narcotic Control Act in 1956 laws regulating drugs have become a common topic in legislatures both federal and state.
Drugs can be moved up or down schedules as more data comes in. Clearly, some classification decisions have been based more on political sentiment than any hard research evidence. Some drugs that had little or no potential for abuse or dependence were left off the schedules. Herbal products and many over the counter medications are either regulated in a different way or not at all.
Two drugs that are the most destructive of human health, Nicotine and Alcohol are not listed on any of these drug enforcement schedules. Some other drugs, antipsychotics, and many antidepressant drugs are also not listed. Newer synthetic drugs, the methcathinone’s or bath salts, were not added until 1992.
Schedule I drugs.
These drugs have a high potential for abuse, these drugs are not commonly accepted for medical treatment in the U. S. and there is a lack of safety data to suggest these drugs would be safe for human consumption. Drugs on this schedule are considered some of the most dangerous of the abused drugs and may not be prescribed by a physician in the U. S. Unfortunately some drugs made this prohibited schedule mostly on the basis of opinions rather than evidence. Currently, Marijuana is a schedule I drug. (I know medical and recreational marijuana are “legal” in some states but the feds still have it on Schedule I. The feds do not license doctors so they can’t keep doctors with state licenses from prescribing marijuana but they can take that doctor’s DEA number. This issue probably needs another post.)
Schedule II drugs.
These drugs have a high potential for abuse. Use or abuse of this drug can lead to addiction as in physical or psychological dependency. These drugs do have a recognized medical use. The question for the doctor is, does that use justify the risks of the patient using the drug. Many of the opioids fall in this category. They work well on pain but they are very likely to produce addiction. These drugs require the prescribing doctor to have a DEA number and to write triplicate prescriptions. One copy stays with the doctor, one goes to the patient to carry to the pharmacy and one goes to the DEA. Hard to believe they miss pill mills considering they get these copies. Still, many of these meds do get diverted into illegal use and result in a significant amount of addiction and deaths.
Schedule III drugs.
Drugs on Schedule III are less likely to be abused than those on Schedules I and II. The medical value is high enough that there are fewer restrictions on prescribing these drugs including who is allowed to prescribe the drugs on this schedule. These drugs are not terribly physically addicting but may be very psychologically addicting.
Schedule IV drugs.
Drugs on this schedule are safer than those on Schedules I, II, and III. These drugs have accepted medical uses and are lower in addiction potential.
Schedule V drugs.
Lowest abuse potential and safest of the scheduled drugs.
Hope this helps explain how the Controlled Substance Act of 1970 with all its subsequent amendments is supposed to help reduce the prescription and use of dangerous pharmaceutical drugs. You may see that there are still some problems with the scheduling of specific drugs and scheduling does not keep them off the street but on balance I think things would be worse if there were no regulations of this kind.
FYI These “What is” sometimes “What are” posts are my efforts to explain terms commonly used in Mental Health, Clinical Counseling, Substance Use Disorder Counseling, Psychology, Life Coaching and related disciplines in a plain language way. Many are based on the new DSM-5; some of the older posts were based on the DSM-IV-TR, both published by the APA. For the more technical versions please consult the DSM or other appropriate references.
You might also want to check out these other counselorssoapbox posts.
Staying connected with David Joel Miller
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse, and Co-occurring disorders see my Facebook author’s page, davidjoelmillerwriter. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com.