Controlled Substance Law

Controlled Substances Act (CSA)




What is Controlled Substance Law?

Controlled substance law consists of prohibitions against the unauthorized possession of drugs that the government has determined to be dangerous, habit-forming, or otherwise not appropriate for use without a prescription. Statutes setting forth these laws have been enacted at all levels of government, including most local municipalities. Violations can result in criminal fines and incarceration. The severity of the penalty in any given case is determined primarily by the quantity of controlled substances involved and whether the offender has past convictions for similar crimes.

At the federal level, Congress enacted the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970 in an effort to categorize regulated drugs based on their potential for abuse, as well as the benefits they provide from a medical standpoint. States have enacted their own schedules in much the same fashion. Drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, and many other street and prescription drugs are placed within one of five “schedules.” The most harmful substances appear in Schedule I, and the rest appear in descending order accordingly.

By placing all controlled substances into schedules, legislatures can then enact criminal statutes that incorporate the schedules by reference. This avoids the need to list all substances covered by a particular law within the text of the law itself. It also provides a convenient means for updating drug laws within a jurisdiction all at once, as individual drugs can be added or removed from the schedules as necessary without the need to amend all the other drug laws. For example, in the year 2000, Congress added the date-rape drug “GHB” to Schedule I, thereby automatically making it illegal under every federal drug law that references that schedule.

Criminal Charges and Statutory Issues

While law enforcement agencies carry out the investigation and apprehension of alleged controlled substance law offenders, the prosecuting attorney will have the final say in charging decisions. This discretion is important because the same conduct can often form the basis for a variety of criminal charges and corresponding punishments. Consider a case in which the defendant is caught giving marijuana to an acquaintance. A prosecutor could potentially charge the case as simple possession, possession with intent to distribute, delivery, trafficking, conspiracy to commit trafficking, and so on.

Once the nature of the charges is known, the defendant and his or her attorney must carefully review the language of the criminal statute. The precise wording of the statute is extremely important. Each portion should be considered individually, and thought of as a separate element that the state must prove in order to convict. In addition to the identity and weight of the substance recovered from the defendant, there may be issues as to the defendant’s knowledge of the substance, or whether the substance was actually in the defendant’s control.

Fourth Amendment Concerns

The fourth amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the government from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures. Law enforcement can only intrude upon an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy under narrow circumstances, especially when acting without a search warrant. Controlled substance cases almost always trigger search and seizure concerns because at some point in the investigation, officers will be invading the suspect’s privacy in order to locate and take possession of the drugs.

In fact, the government can violate a suspect’s fourth amendment rights in a number of ways besides conducting an improper search. Rights may be violated from performing an unjustified traffic stop (that subsequently leads to the discovery of controlled substances), by making false statements in order to obtain a warrant, or through the use of illegal wiretapping or eavesdropping. In all such cases the defendant may have grounds to suppress the evidence recovered as a result of the unconstitutional actions by the police. This means the evidence cannot be considered, typically leaving the prosecutor with no choice but to dismiss the charges.

Alternative Sentencing Programs for Drug Offenders

Prisons in the United States are badly overcrowded. Government data shows that a large proportion of prison inmates are serving time for non-violent drug offenses. The expense to the taxpayer associated with high incarceration rates has led to a lack of support for the status quo among the American public. As a result, those convicted of controlled substance offenses have new options available besides going to jail, especially when the alternative sentencing program can be made part of a voluntary plea agreement.

The most widely-used sentencing alternative is known as “drug court.” For participants who are genuinely interested in making meaningful changes in their lives and permanently committing to sobriety, drug court can be a successful experience. It usually consists of weekly group meetings, held in court and in front of the judge, but in a more relaxed atmosphere than formal criminal proceedings. Participants are rewarded with less supervision for staying clean, and can be immediately sent to jail as punishment for failed chemical tests, which are administered regularly.

Controlled Substance Law Attorneys

If you are facing criminal prosecution for a controlled substance violation, it is critical that you refrain from speaking any further with law enforcement, and that you seek help from an attorney right away. The law provides you with strong protections, but to take advantage you need an experienced attorney to advise you.

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