Drug Possession Laws and Penalties: A Helpful Guide

Understanding Drug Possession Laws
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It’s well known that possession of illicit drugs and related paraphernalia can land someone in big trouble with the law. What is less widely understood is just how much these laws vary across the country.

Some individuals who faces a felony in one state may only see a misdemeanor charge if they were apprehended in another state. Some may not even realize that sharing their prescription medication with family members is illegal in all 50!

If a family member (or yourself) is struggling with a substance abuse problem, learning more about the stiff penalties faced by those who are arrested on drug possession charges is important. The threat of major fines or time in prison may be enough to encourage loved ones to get help.

This guide provides an overview of drug possessions laws across the United States and is an essential tool for those trying to navigate the road back to sobriety.

How Is Drug Possession Defined By Law?

Many substances, ranging from commonly known illicit drugs to popular prescription medications, are “controlled” substances. That means that the federal government has decided a substance is risky and isn’t fit for human consumption, except under certain circumstances.

In many cases, possession of certain substances is in itself is a crime. Someone could be found guilty of possession even if the drugs aren’t found on their person. Here’s a basic breakdown on how federal law defines possession.

Depending on the state, most types of drugs qualify for drug possession charges, including:

  • Marijuana, except in states that have legalized recreational use for adults.
  • Cocaine.
  • LSD or “acid.”
  • Crystal methamphetamine.
  • Heroin and other illegal opioids.
  • Black market prescription medications, or misused or stolen prescription medications.
  • “Designer” drugs like ecstasy.

Knowledge of the Substance

In a court of law, prosecutors don’t need to prove than an individual knew certain drugs were illegal. All they have to show is that the person intended to use, move, or sell the substance. Furthermore, a person’s intent can be proven in court without explicit evidence that they planned to use or sell said drugs.

Ownership of the Substance

Possession charges become more serious when prosecutors look to prove not only that a person had an illegal substance but acquired it for a specific use. In some cases, the person might have been arrested in the act. Note that a court can prove possession in cases where an individual is knowingly storing illegal drugs in a location away from their person.

Shared Ownership of the Substance

Simply inhabiting space close to another person using or storing illegal drugs can turn into legal problems. All a prosecutor needs to prove is that someone like a spouse or roommate knew about the substances or took steps to help conceal them. In this case, that individual might also be charged with possession of an illegal substance.

Understanding the Federal Drug Scheduling System

A long list of substances is included as part of the federal government’s scheduling system. While it’s not safe or smart to abuse any drugs, understanding the increasing risks associated with certain substance helps to illustrate how dire the consequences will be.

At the federal level, the U.S. government schedules marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, the same classification assigned to heroin, an unarguably more harmful drug. This scheduling persists despite the fact that many states have legalized medical marijuana and several have decriminalized or legalized recreational marijuana for adults. Federal scheduling does not only apply to illicit drugs like illegal cannabis, cocaine, and heroin, but also prescription medications that pose specific dangers to users or carry potential for abuse.

The following section highlights exactly how the federal government organizes each substance by its perceived risk to the public:

Federal Drug Schedule


Schedule I

Dangerous, potentially addictive substances that have proven to have little-to-no medical value.

Some examples include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine and cannabis. However, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is currently considering a reclassification of cannabis to a lower schedule due to emerging scientific proof of medicinal value. This includes cannabis use as treatment for various physical and psychological medical conditions like cancer, anorexia, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder

Schedule II

These are potentially dangerous and addictive substances that, unlike Schedule I, have demonstrated potential medical value in very specific scenarios.

One example is amphetamine, a drug capable of effectively treating the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy when used appropriately. When misused, amphetamines are powerful stimulants capable of encouraging dependency.

Schedule III

Substances with potential for abuse but also obvious and wide-reading applications in a medical setting.

Some examples include ketamine (used to treat mental illness and depression), and Vicodin, an opioid painkiller effective in treating certain types of pain with appropriate use. Anabolic steroids are another example.

Schedule IIII

Medications widely used by normal Americans (such as many antidepressants) that pose a minimal risk to health. However, these drugs can be abused in large doses.

Ativan, Valium, and Xanax are some of the most commonly prescribed Schedule IV drugs in the country, but they are also some of the most commonly abused drugs. Drug abuse of any kind is extremely dangerous – including prescription drugs – as many Americans dismiss out of hand as safe, since they come with prescriptions from doctors.

Schedule V

The medications with the lowest potential for addiction or abuse are placed at the lowest level.

This classification generally extends to medications blended with small amounts of narcotics. For example, Tylenol with codeine and cough syrup with codeine.

Penalties for Drug Possession Will Vary

One of the most frustrating realities about drug possession laws is that penalties can vary greatly from state to state. In terms of punishment, drug possession charges can range from fines and probation to mandatory prison sentences.

 In most cases, rules will change from substance to substance. Unfortunately, these differences can appear to be arbitrary at times.

Rather than focusing on the individual differences of penalties for each state, city, county, and municipality, here’s a number of rules of thumb to help readers understand just how much penalties can vary depending on the situation.

  • When a person is found with several doses of the same substance, they could be charged with intent to sell, not just possession
  • If a person is arrested while operating a moving vehicle, their charges will not be limited to possession
  • A criminal record, especially related to drug charges, will likely worsen potential penalties for repeated arrests based on possession or intent to sell
  • Across the spectrum, Schedule I substances carry more severe penalties than Schedule V
  • If a minor somehow gains access to a controlled substance, an individual at fault will suffer even harsher penalties

Drug Possession Penalties at the State Level

Individuals will have to deal with varied drug possession charges based on what state they are apprehended in.

It’s important to note that a simple possession that may carry a misdemeanor in one state may very well qualify for felony charges in another. That’s another reason why understanding the nuances of drug possession law a state level is so important.

Advanced Drug Possession Laws Across the U.S. 

Some state-level drug possession penalties are more common than others. None are absolutely universal, but there are some that are on the books in enough states that it makes sense to learn more about them. Two in particular stand out as potential state level penalties and that must be discussed:

  • “Three-strike laws” are a popular penalty strategy that is leveraged by nearly half the states in the country, 24 to be precise. Three-strike laws punish criminals with increasingly severe punishments for being charged with the same crime more than twice.
  • “Mandatory minimums” refer to the very minimum penalty that a court must assign to anyone who violates illegal drug laws. These laws change from state to state but they are fairly universal. Ultimately, the goal of these laws are to deter drug use but they can also put long-time substance abusers at greater risk.

Drug Possession Laws and charges in Arizona

Now that we understand how drug possession penalties can differ at the state level, it makes sense to take a closer look at an example. The state of Arizona is known to have some of the strictest state-level drug possessions laws and penalties in the country, making it the perfect subject for an examination.

For the sake of clarity, we’ve broken down several examples of drug possession penalties related to three of the most commonly abused drugs in the state.

Marijuana Sentencing in Arizona

Arizona has passed medical marijuana legislation, allowing individuals with qualifying medical conditions to purchase, possess, and consume medical cannabis products. However, individuals must secure the appropriate paperwork from a prescribing physician and purchase their cannabis products from state-licensed dispensaries.

Failing to meet these requirements, possession and use of marijuana is a crime and subject to the following penalties:

Suspected Intent

Corresponding Penalties

Personal use (any possession less than 2 lbs)

Qualifies for class six felony (personal use); may be reduced to misdemeanor

Personal use (grown by individual)

Qualifies for class five felony

Intent to Sell (any possession greater than 2 lbs)

Qualifies for class four felony due to intent to sell

Cocaine Sentencing in Arizona

In the state of Arizona, cocaine is regulated a bit differently. With marijuana, the amount that an individual has in their possession will have a large impact on their penalty. Not so with cocaine, as penalties are much stricter and even a small amount can qualify an individual for a full-on felony charge. Proof of intent is much more relevant to the judge deciding on an individual’s case.

Suspected Intent

Corresponding Penalties

Personal use (and no prior convictions)

Qualifies for class four felony and a major fine; may be reduced to misdemeanor

Intent to Sell (to minors)

Qualifies for class two felony and a major fine, may qualify for greater fines and mandatory prison time

Trafficking (manufacturing)

Qualifies for class two felony

Trafficking (importing/exporting)

Qualifies for class two felony

Methamphetamine Sentencing in Arizona

Methamphetamine possession is similar to marijuana and cocaine in that repeated offenses lead to more serious consequences. Unlike those two drugs, however, methamphetamine charges in the state of Arizona often come with mandatory prison sentencing.

Suspected Intent

Corresponding Penalties

Personal use (any possession less than 9 grams)

Qualifies for class four felony and up to 3.75 years in prison, no mandatory probation (no prior convictions)

Mandatory prison time up to 2.75 years (1 prior conviction)

Mandatory prison time up to 15 years (2 prior conviction)

Intent to Sell/Trafficking

Qualifies for class two felony and mandatory prison time up to 15 years

Mandatory prison time up to 20 years (1 prior conviction)

Finding Help for Addiction

Drug addiction is a serious issue in the United States, and the country has experienced an unprecedented wave of overdose-related deaths recently. While illegal opioids are the leading cause of accidental overdose deaths, other illicit drugs can not only lead to felony drug possession charges but also addiction and overdose. Treatment centers in Arizona know that many people struggling with addiction also face legal consequences for their actions, and it is vital for everyone to recognize the need for substance abuse treatment before suffering severe legal penalties.

Avoid Legal Penalties and More by Finding Help for Addiction

The longer and more often a person enters the legal system related to substance abuse, the more likely it is that they are sent to prison for a long time. Even in a best-case scenario, legal troubles related to drug abuse carry stiff fines. Likewise, having to go to multiple court dates can hinder career opportunities.

The best way to avoid legal troubles like these is to not let them happen in the first place. When it comes to substance abuse, that means getting help from a professional. At Acceptance Recovery Center, our goal is to provide the professional support that helps loved ones heal from addiction.


If You or a Loved One Has a Drug Addiction, We Can Help Before the Law Intervenes


About Dr. Greg Gale, MD

Dr. Greg Gale has been practicing and providing leadership in the field of psychiatry, substance use, and integrated care in the Phoenix metropolitan area for over 11 years. He joins us from his role as a national medical director overseeing behavioral health, substance use, and integrated care services for Humana Behavioral Health. Previously, he was CMO and VP of Clinical Services at Partners in Recovery, a not-for-profit behavioral health and substance use service organization, which operates five clinics throughout Maricopa County. Read more about Dr. Greg Gale, MD