Learn about the health risks of abusing prescription drugs and the penalties for violating laws governing their misuse.
What is a prescription drug?
A prescription drug is a drug that can be obtained only by means of a physician’s prescription, which means it is a controlled substance.
Legal Prescription drugs are widely used. They help people all around the world treat medical conditions, but they can cause harm if they’re misused.
Virginia law classifies prescription drugs according to “schedules.” Drugs, substances, and certain chemicals used to make drugs are classified into five distinct categories or schedules depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential (Code of Virginia §§ 54.1-3401 and 54.1-3446). Virginia’s Drug Control Act reflects the drug classifications in federal law and adds a sixth category in Virginia law that includes substances that are not “drugs” in the conventional sense, but are nonetheless used or abused. Alcohol and tobacco are excluded from this definition of a controlled substance; laws governing alcohol and tobacco are included elsewhere in the Code.
What is prescription drug abuse?
Prescription drug abuse occurs when someone takes a prescription drug that was prescribed for another person or in a manner or at a dosage other than what was prescribed.
Is it okay to take a drug prescribed for someone else?
No. It is unlawful for any person to knowingly or intentionally 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) 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. According to a 2019 United Nations report, there are 53 million opioid (prescription medication used to reduce pain) users worldwide. In a 2020 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, 14% of students reported misusing prescription opioids. Youth opioid use is directly linked to sexual risk behaviors. In addition, a 2021 CDC report stated that 75% of nearly 92,000 drug overdose deaths in 2020 involved an opioid. That makes painkillers one of the most commonly abused drugs after tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana.
What are the types of prescription drugs?
Pharmaceutically produced opioids are prescription medications that relieve pain. They reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain and affect those brain areas controlling emotion, which diminishes the effects of a painful stimulus. They can cause drowsiness, physical dependence, and can slow breathing and your heart rate so much that it can cause death.
Medications that fall within this class include fentanyl, hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin), oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (e.g., Kadian, Avinza), codeine, and related drugs.
- Fentanyl is a synthetic (meaning human-made versus found in nature) opioid pain reliever that can come in the form of patches, lozenges, or injection, all of which are used legally in hospital settings or as directed by a doctor to treat severe pain.
- Hydrocodone products are the most commonly prescribed for a variety of painful conditions, including dental and injury-related pain.
- Morphine is often used before and after surgical procedures to alleviate severe pain.
Teens consider the abuse of prescription drugs to be much safer than street drugs. One in four in teens believe prescription drugs can be used as a study aid.
They also believe prescription pain relievers are not addictive.
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.
Over-the-counter Drugs (OTC)
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.
How are prescription drugs classified in the schedules in Virginia’s Drug Control Act?
The Virginia Drug Control Act places controlled substances into five categories called “schedules,” depending upon the drug’s acceptable medical use and the drug’s abuse or dependency potential. Virginia’s Drug Control Act reflects the drug classifications in federal law and adds a sixth category in Virginia law that includes substances that are not “drugs” in the conventional sense, but are nonetheless used or abused. (Code of Virginia §§ 54.1-3446 through 54.1-3456.1).
The schedules are described below. Note that all Schedule I drugs (except marijuana pursuant to a valid prescription and for a limited purpose) and many Schedule II drugs are illegal to possess.
SCHEDULE I drugs have a high potential for abuse with no accepted medical use. Drugs in this schedule 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?
There are three major crimes involving drugs in Virginia: possession, distribution, and manufacturing.
The crime of drug possession occurs when a person possesses any controlled substance without a valid prescription. (Code of Virginia § 18.2-250).
The crime of drug sale or distribution occurs when a person sells, provides, gives away, delivers, or distributes a controlled substance. (Code of Virginia §§ 18.2-248 and 18.2-255).
The crime of 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 ofany 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.
Virginia law also defines drug paraphernalia as materials of any kind used in producing or using drugs. Examples include pipes, bongs, smoking papers, and certain kits used for injecting drugs.(Code of Virginia § 18.2-265.1). It can be illegal to possess certain drug paraphernalia and it is illegal to distribute drug paraphernalia. (Code of Virginia §§ 54.1-3466 and 18.2-265.3).
What if I possess or distribute prescription drugs at school?
The school is required by law to notify the local law enforcement agency when any student has committed certain offenses, including any conduct involving alcohol, marijuana, a controlled substance, imitation controlled substance, or an anabolic steroid if the offense may constitute a felony (reporting non-felony offenses relating to these are up to the principal’s discretion). (Code of Virginia § 22.1-279.3:1 and the enhanced penalties Code of Virginia § 18.2-255.2).
You will be subject to both school disciplinary action and criminal action.
Code of Virginia § 22.1-277.08 requires local school board policies to provide for 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.
Can law enforcement search for prescription 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 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. Depending on the amount you have in your possession, the officer may also charge you with the crime of distribution of a controlled substance in violation of Code of Virginia § 18.2-255.
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.