In almost every part of the United States, possession of drug paraphernalia and illicit drugs is illegal and constitutes a federal crime. An individual charged with drug possession may face misdemeanor or felony charges depending on various factors, such as the intent behind the drug possession, the type of drug, the quantity, and related criminal acts. Everyone should know the drug possession laws in their state and understand federal drug classification. Drug possession charges can lead to heavy fines, prison time, and a criminal record.
What Is Drug Possession?
Possession of any substance defined as an illicit drug is a criminal drug possession offense. 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.
- LSD or “acid.”
- Crystal methamphetamine.
- Heroin and other illegal opioids.
- Black market prescription medications, or misused or stolen prescription medications.
- “Designer” drugs like ecstasy.
Each state has different drug possession laws. What qualifies as a misdemeanor in one state could be a felony in the next state, and some drug possession violations may lead to federal charges.
Federal Scheduling of Drugs
The federal government classifies or schedules drugs based on their potential for abuse, medical value, availability, and overall danger to the public. A great deal of skepticism continues to surround the scheduling status of many substances, particularly marijuana.
At the federal level, the U.S. government schedules marijuana as a Schedule I narcotic, the same classification assigned to heroin, an inarguably 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.
Schedule I Drugs
The federal government defines Schedule I drugs as those with no medical value and high potential for abuse. Some examples of Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, 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 Drugs
Schedule II drugs carry minimal medical value in limited capacities and a high potential for abuse. 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 Drugs
Schedule III drugs are those with more apparent medical value and less potential for abuse. Some examples include ketamine, an effective treatment for depression, and Vicodin, an opioid painkiller effective in treating certain types of pain with appropriate use. Anabolic steroids also fall under Schedule III.
Schedule IV Drugs
Prescription drugs that treat specific medical conditions and carry a relatively low potential for abuse, with appropriate use, fall under Schedule IV federal classification. 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 Drugs
The lowest level of federal drug classification is Schedule V, which includes drugs with minimal potential for abuse and obvious medical value. This classification generally extends to medications blended with small amounts of narcotics. For example, Tylenol with codeine would qualify as a Schedule V drug.
State-Level Variations of Drug Possession Laws
If you plan to travel out of state or move to a new state in the near future, it is worth taking the time to investigate the new state’s drug possession laws. If you take any prescription medication that falls under federal scheduling or use other drugs, the potential penalties for drug possession charges may be much more severe in the new state.
Felony drug possession charges could potentially lead to thousands of dollars in fines and a year or more in jail. Ignorance of the law is not a valid excuse, so it is everyone’s personal responsibility to know and respect applicable drug possession laws.
For example, in one state simple possession may qualify as a felony regardless of the amount or the intended use of the drug. In others, simple drug possession of a small quantity for personal use may only result in a citation and a fine or a lesser misdemeanor charge.
Possible Penalties for Drug Possession
While arrest for a small amount of an illicit drug, obviously intended for personal use, may only result in a charge for simple possession, an individual could face more severe charges if arresting officers discover evidence of intent to sell the drug.
Should a person be arrested during a traffic stop after the police discover a very small amount of crack cocaine and a pipe used to smoke it, the person would only face simple possession charges in most states. However, if the police arrest an individual with multiple baggies of individual doses, this is clear evidence the individual intended to sell and/or distribute the drug to others, a more serious possession charge.
Possession with intent to sell carries much more severe penalties than simple possession. Some states do not require evidence of intent to sell and instead prosecute drug possession charges based on quantity and the type of drug seized. For example, a very large quantity of a Schedule I drug would likely lead to much more severe penalties than possessing a smaller amount of a Schedule III drug, but it ultimately depends on the jurisdiction.
Drug Possession Laws in Arizona
Arizona is notorious for having some of the toughest drug possession laws and most severe penalties of any state in the country. In Arizona, it is illegal to knowingly possess or use illicit drugs, to enter a public space under the influence of illegal drugs, or to keep drugs on your person for any reason. Any such offense would likely lead to felony drug possession charges.
Possession of any amount of a “dangerous drug” or a narcotic under Arizona law is a class four felony. It is possible for an offender to receive a reduced charge of a class one misdemeanor if he or she has no prior drug charges for meth or other amphetamines. The minimum fine is the greater of $2,000 or three times the value of the drug seized at arrest. A charge involving $1,000 worth of a dangerous drug would qualify for a minimum fine of $3,000.
Felony drug possession in Arizona will lead to up to one year in jail for a first-time offender or up to 3.75 years in jail for a repeat offender. A conviction for narcotics possession can lead to up to 15 years in prison with two prior convictions.
Marijuana in Arizona
Arizona has passed medical marijuana legislation, allowing individuals with qualifying medical conditions to purchase, possess, and consume medical cannabis products. These individuals must secure the appropriate paperwork from a prescribing physician and purchase their cannabis products from state-licensed dispensaries. Having a medical marijuana card in Arizona does not form a legal basis to purchase cannabis off the street or consume cannabis for recreational purposes.
If the police arrest an individual in Arizona for marijuana possession, the charges vary based on the quantity, origin, and intended use of the marijuana.
- Less than two pounds of cannabis would qualify for class six felony charges if the cannabis was intended for personal use, but lower quantities may qualify for a reduction to misdemeanor charges.
- Cannabis possession of less than two pounds of marijuana qualifies as a class five felony if the offender cultivated the marijuana personally.
- An offender will receive a class four felony charge if he or she intended to sell the marijuana.
- A first-time marijuana possession offense may lead to jail time up to one year, or up to 3.75 years with prior convictions.
It is essential to understand Arizona’s drug possession laws to avoid serious legal penalties. A criminal record for drug possession of any kind can interfere with employment opportunities and could also lead to other legal issues. It can lead to loss of child custody or mandatory diversionary program attendance. A person convicted of felony drug possession may need to attend a drug and alcohol education course or other diversionary program as part of sentencing.
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 Going to Rehab
A Scottsdale rehab facility may offer the best chance of recovery from substance abuse. Drug addiction help is a difficult subject to approach for many people, and all Arizona residents should know the risks of drug possession, both in terms of legal penalties and addiction risk.
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.