Learn what laws govern the use and possession of drugs, including prescription drugs and household products, and the penalties involved.
What is a controlled substance?
A controlled substance is defined in Code of Virginia § 54.1-3401, as a drug or substance listed in Schedules I through VI of the Virginia Drug Control Act. Alcohol and tobacco are excluded from this definition of a controlled substance; laws governing alcohol and tobacco are included elsewhere in the Code.
The Virginia Drug Control Act places controlled substances into five categories called “schedules.” (Code of Virginia §§ 54.1-3446 through 54.1-3456.1). Virginia’s Drug Control Act reflects the drug classifications in the federal Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970.
How are drugs classified in the schedules in Virginia’s Drug Control Act?
Controlled substances are classified into Schedules I through VI.
Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, and include heroin and LSD.
Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse and severe dependence, but have a currently accepted medical use. Schedule II drugs include fentanyl, PCP, cocaine, methadone, methamphetamine, and codeine.
Schedule III drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule II drugs, a potential for moderate dependency and an accepted medical use. Anabolic steroids and buprenorphine fall into this category.
Schedule IV drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule III drugs, a limited potential for dependency, and are accepted in medical treatment. Schedule IV drugs include Valium, Xanax and other tranquilizers and sedatives.
Schedule V drugs have a low potential for abuse, limited risk for dependency and accepted medical uses. These include drugs like cough medicines with codeine.
Schedule VI includes certain substances which are not “drugs” in the conventional sense, but are nonetheless used, or abused, recreationally; these include toluene (found in many types
of paint, especially spray paint) and similar inhalants such as amyl nitrite (or “poppers”), butyl nitrite, and nitrous oxide (found in many types of aerosol cans, though it is pharmacologically active, it is considered an inhalant). Many state and local governments enforce age limits on the sale of products containing these substances.
What types of drug crimes are in Virginia law?
The three major types of drug crimes are drug possession, drug distribution, and drug manufacturing.
The crime of drug possession occurs when a person possesses any controlled substance without a valid prescription. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-250). For example, no person younger than 21 years old shall possess (or consume) marijuana. (Code of Virginia § 4.1-1105.1(A)).
The crime of drug sale or distribution occurs when a person sells, provides, gives away, delivers, or distributes a controlled substance. Intent to sell, give, or distribute can be shown by considering factors such as the quantity possessed.
The crime drug manufacturing occurs when a person produces a controlled substance without legal authorization or possesses chemicals used in the manufacture of a controlled substance with intent to manufacture.
Code of Virginia § 54.1-3401 contains the following definitions:
“Sale” includes barter, exchange, or gift, or offer therefore, and each such transaction made by any person, whether as an individual, proprietor, agent, servant, or employee.
“Distribute” means to deliver other than by administering or dispensing a controlled substance.
“Manufacture” means the production, preparation, propagation, conversion, or processing of any item regulated by this chapter, either directly or indirectly by extraction from substances of natural origin, or independently by means of chemical synthesis, or by a combination of extraction and chemical synthesis, and includes any packaging or repackaging of the substance or labeling or relabeling of its container. This term does not include compounding.
What are the penalties for drug crimes?
The penalties depend on the schedule of controlled substance and the type of crime – whether the crime involves possession, sale or distribution, or manufacturing drugs. The table below provides a simple overview of possible penalties.
|Penalties (Code of Virginia § 18.2-248)
|Possession of Schedule I or II controlled substance
|Class 5 felony – imprisonment of one to 10 years, or confinement in jail for up to 12 months and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.
|Possession of Schedule III controlled substance
|Class 1 misdemeanor – confinement in jail for up to 12 months and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.
|Possession of Schedule IV controlled substance
|Class 2 misdemeanor – confinement in jail for up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000, either or both.
|Possession of Schedule V controlled substance
|Class 3 misdemeanor – fine of up to $500.
|Possession of Schedule VI controlled substance
|Class 4 misdemeanor – fine of up to $250.
|Distribution or Possession with Intent to Distribute (Code of Virginia § 18.2-248)
|Distribution of, or possession with intent to distribute Schedule I or II controlled substance
|First felony conviction – imprisonment from five to 40 years and a fine of up to $500,000.
Upon a second conviction and other circumstances, the violator must be imprisoned for not less than five years but may suffer life imprisonment, and fined up to $500,000.
|Distribution of, or possession with intent to distribute Schedules III, IV, or V/VI controlled substance
|Schedule III: Class 5 felony (Code of Virginia § 18.2-248(E1)). Schedule IV: Class 6 felony (Code of Virginia § 18.2-248(E2)). Schedule V or VI: Class 1 misdemeanor conviction (Code of Virginia § 18.2-248(F)).
Felony conviction, see Code of Virginia § 18.2-10; Misdemeanor conviction, see Code of Virginia § 18.2-11
What if I am with someone who has a drug overdose? If I call for help, won’t I get in trouble?
Seek help immediately. Unfortunately, it is sometimes possible for someone to have a life-threatening physical reaction to drugs or alcohol: this is known as an overdose. It is critical that someone who is having this sort of reaction get immediate medical attention, as that person may die if left untreated. EMS and police personnel have access to drugs such as Narcan, which can counteract the effects of an opioid overdose. However, Narcan is not always effective.
Under Code of Virginia § 18.2-251.03(B)(1)-(3), someone who seeks or obtains emergency medical attention for himself or for another individual because of a drug- or alcohol-related overdose in progress may be protected from being convicted for certain possession or intoxication crimes if the person reports an overdose to a firefighter, EMS personnel, or a law enforcement officer (most commonly by calling 911 for emergency medical response), or assist or provides care to the individual experiencing an overdose. To be eligible for this “affirmative defense,” the person reporting the overdose must identify themselves as being the one who reported the overdose. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-251.03(B)(3)).
What if I possess or distribute drugs at school?
First, the school is required by law to notify the local law enforcement agency when any student has committed certain offenses, including any felonious conduct involving alcohol, marijuana, a controlled substance, imitation controlled substance, or an anabolic steroid (reporting non-felony offenses involving these are subject to the principal’s discretion). (Code of Virginia § 22.1-279.3:1(A)(iii)). You will be subject to both school disciplinary action and criminal action.
Code of Virginia § 22.1-277.08(A) allows local school boards to consider the expulsion of any student determined to have brought a controlled substance, imitation controlled substance, or marijuana onto school property or to a school-sponsored activity.
What is drug paraphernalia?
Drug paraphernalia is defined in Code of Virginia § 18.2-265.1 as equipment, products, and materials of any kind that are designed for use in planting, propagating, cultivating, growing, harvesting, manufacturing, compounding, converting, producing, processing, preparing, strength testing, analyzing, packaging, repackaging, storing, containing, concealing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body marijuana or a controlled substance. It can be illegal to possess certain drug paraphernalia, and it is illegal to distribute drug para-phernalia. (Code of Virginia §§ 54.1-3466 and 18.2-265.3).
Can law enforcement search for drugs at my school?
Yes. Law enforcement officers may periodically make unannounced visits to any public school for the purpose of detecting the presence of illegal drugs. Drug dogs are one method that law enforcement officers may use to search for drugs.
Does driving while intoxicated include drugs or just alcohol?
According to Code of Virginia § 18.2-266, you can be charged with a DUI/DUID while you are under the influence of marijuana, synthetic cannabinoids, or any other controlled substance. The statute says that it is illegal for any person to drive a car:
- while such person is under the influence of any narcotic drug or any other self-administered intoxicant or drug of whatsoever nature, or any combination of such drugs, to a degree which impairs his ability to drive or operate any motor vehicle;
- while such person is under the combined influence of alcohol and any drug or drugs to a degree which impairs his ability to drive or operate any motor vehicle; or
- while such person has a blood concentration of any of the following substances at a level that is equal to or greater than:
- 0.02 milligrams of cocaine per liter of blood,
- 0.1 milligrams of methamphetamine (meth) per liter of blood,
- 0.01 milligrams of phencyclidine (PCP) per liter of blood, or
- 0.1 milligrams of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy) per liter of blood.
What is drug trafficking?
Drug trafficking is the possession of large quantities of illegal drugs associated with sale for profit of the drugs rather than personal consumption.
What if a law enforcement officer finds drugs in my possession?
The law enforcement officer will confiscate the controlled substance and charge you with possession of a controlled substance in violation of Code of Virginia § 18.2-250.
There is a “Drug-free School Zone” sign at my school. What does this mean?
“Drug-free School Zone” is a term used in the United States to denote an area within a certain distance, most commonly 1,000 feet, of the nearest school, park, or other public area. Signs to this effect are generally posted along all public streets at the entrances to such an area.
It is illegal to manufacture, sell, distribute, or possess with intent to sell, give, or distribute any controlled substance, imitation controlled substance, or marijuana on school grounds. Anyone violating this law is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment of one to five years, and a fine of $100,000. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-255.2).
Is it okay to take a drug prescribed for someone else?
No. It is unlawful for any person knowingly or intentionally to possess a controlled substance unless the substance was obtained directly from, or pursuant to, a valid prescription or order of a practitioner while acting in the course of his professional practice. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-250 (A)). This means that it is illegal to take another person’s prescription for any reason.
Are prescription and over-the-counter drugs being abused?
Yes. 4.9 percent of teens age 12 to 17 abuse prescription drugs annually, with 695,000 (or 2.8 percent) abusing prescription pain relievers. In addition, 1.6 million (or 6.5) abuse prescription pain medication. That makes prescription the fastest growing problem affecting teens after cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. In 2020, more than 16,000 teens died from an overdose of prescription pain medication.
There are many different types of prescription drugs.
Examples of frequently abused prescription opioids (often used as painkillers) include fentanyl, hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, and related drugs. They can cause drowsiness, physical dependence, and can slow breathing so much that it can cause death. Fentanyl in particular has become common in overdose cases.
More about Fentanyl
- Fentanyl is estimated to be 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Outside of legal production for use in hospitals and by doctors, fentanyl is also produced illegally in illegal labo-ratories, both domestically and abroad, and is then distributed to dealers and users in different forms.
- Fentanyl in powder form is often combined with heroin or other substances, like cocaine, to increase potency or to add an opioid effect to an otherwise non-opioid drug.
- Drug dealers also press fentanyl into pill forms, alone or in combination with other substances. The pills can be made to look like other controlled substances, such as Oxycodone, Percocet, and Xanax, which often makes users think they are taking real prescription pills.
Depressants and Stimulants
Other types of commonly abused prescription drugs include drugs that are referred to as depressants or stimulants. Depressants are sometimes prescribed for anxiety or sleep disorders. They can make you feel drowsy, dizzy, and confused, and abuse can cause shallow breathing and even death. Commonly abused depressants include drugs such as Xanax, Ativan, Valium, and Ambien.
Some depressants, like Xanax and Ativan, are in a class of drugs called Benzodiazepines. You might hear these drugs referred to as “Benzos.” As with pressed opioid pills, some people are making pills and labeling them as “Xanax” or other Benzodiazepines. As we talked about before, these pills are sometimes made using fentanyl powder and are extremely dangerous if ingested. Another type of depressant that is often misused is Rohypnol – also called a “roofie.” People use Rohypnol, and another similar drug called GHB, to facilitate sexual assaults.
Stimulants speed up the body’s systems and can cause anxiety, panic, tremors, irregular heartbeat, high body temperature, and heart attack. Long-term use can lead to psychosis, paranoia, and homicidal tendencies. People who suddenly stop taking stimulants can become tired, depressed, and in some cases, suicidal. Commonly abused stimulants include drugs such as Ritalin, Dexedrine, and Adderall.
OTC drugs that you can buy at any pharmacy or grocery store are also abused. The most commonly abused OTC drug is Dextromethorphan (DXM). DXM is the active ingredient found in over-the-counter cough and cold medicine. These can cause impaired motor and mental functioning, numbness, nausea/vomiting, loss of coordination, hallucination, and increased heart rate and blood pressure.
- 40 percent of teens consider the abuse of prescription drugs to be much safer than street drugs.
- 29 percent believe prescription pain relievers are not addictive.
Is Spice illegal?
Synthetic Cannabinoids, “JWH,” “Spice,” or “synthetic marijuana” is an herbal product sold as incense. Its “high” is thought to be similar to that of marijuana. Spice is a relatively new drug that has negative effects on the body. Some of the known health risks can include agitation, anxiety, vomiting, tremors, seizures, and psychotic episodes.
Synthetic Cannabinoids are a Schedule I drug. This means that it has a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use. (Code of Virginia § 54.1-3445 and 54.1-3446).
What are bath salts and are they illegal?
Code of Virginia § 54.1-3446(3) makes it illegal to possess, use, or distribute methlyenedioxypyrovalerone (MDPV) or methylmethcathinone (mephedrone), two common synthetic cathinones found in drugs known as “bath salts.” These drugs are sometimes also sold with the label of “plant food,” “bath crystals,” “herbal incense,” or “research chemicals.” All carry a warning saying that they are not intended for human consumption.
Bath salts are not the traditional cosmetic bath salts and instead are chemical synthetic stimulants often sold in powder form which are often ingested by sniffing/snorting or can be taken orally, smoked, or put into solution and injected. These drugs can cause rapid heart rate, which can lead to heart attack and stroke, chest pains, nosebleeds, vomiting and seizures. These effects are similar to those caused by cocaine, LSD, MDMA (ecstasy), and amphetamine.
As a Schedule I drug, bath salts have been found to have a high potential for abuse and have no accepted medical use. (Code of Virginia § 54.1-3445).
Any person who is found in possession of bath salts will be guilty of a Class 5 felony and can be imprisoned for one to 10 years or can be imprisoned for up to 12 months and be required to pay a fine of up to $2,500. (Code of Virginia §§ 18.2-10 (e) and 18.2-250 (A)(a)).
What are inhalants and are they illegal?
Inhalants are chemical vapors that people inhale on purpose to get “high.” The vapors produce mind-altering, and sometimes disastrous, effects.
Code of Virginia § 18.2-264 makes it illegal to use, or encourage others to use, inhalants. Those that use inhalants are guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor and can be sentenced to up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $2,500. People who encourage others to use them are guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor and can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. (Code of Virginia §§ 18.2-11 and 18.2-264(B)).
How dangerous are inhalants?
Inhalants contain many chemicals and, while some leave the body quickly, others get absorbed by your body and brain and can cause damage. Long-term inhalant use can cause muscle spasms, tremors, or even permanent difficulty with basic actions like walking, bending, or talking. In 2020, a government agency reported that other long-term effects include liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, bone marrow damage, and brain damage. It can affect your brain in ways that can make it hard for you to learn new things, carry on a conversation, or solve problems.
“Sudden sniffing death” occurs when high concentrations of inhalants take the place of oxygen in the lungs and brain, causing breathing to stop and death by suffocation. Deliberately inhaling from a paper or plastic bag or in a closed area increases the chance of suffocation. Inhalants can kill you the very first time you use them.