How does legislation address substance abuse?

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Substance abuse, also known as drug abuse, is characterized by overuse of and dependence on addictive substances, most often narcotic drugs or alcohol. Legislative issues affecting and addressing substance abuse and substance abusers are addressed at the federal, state, and local levels.
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Scope of the Issue

In 2015, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, nearly one-half of persons in prisons in the United States were imprisoned for drug-related crimes. According to the National Substance Abuse Index, the United States is the largest single market in the world for illegal drugs. States generally are left to legislate substance abuse issues.

Federal law, however, may require states to take certain actions, such as tracking specific instances or reporting some types of infractions. Laws also generally distinguish between legal substances, such as alcohol, and illegal substances, including the unlawful use of prescription medication.

Each state chooses what federal laws to enact. Though there are thirty-nine federal laws pertaining to alcohol, for example, states are not bound by them. States also are required to follow the parameters of federal sentencing guidelines.

History of Substance Abuse Legislation

The criminalization of drugs in the United States began in 1914 with the Harrison Tax Act. Under this law, a tax of $1,000 was imposed for the nonmedical exchange of certain drugs; the law, however, pertained to tax evasion, not drug use or transfer.

In the early and middle decades of the twentieth century several federal agencies had varying responsibilities and power in drug law enforcement. By the 1960s most of this enforcement was in the hands of the federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Bureau of Drug Abuse Control. Changing attitudes toward drug use during the 1960s and into the 1970s gradually led to increases in crime. Federal law enforcement agencies continued to evolve, as did legislation.

The US Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act , part of the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, launching national substance control campaigns. The law consolidated legislation that regulates the manufacture and distribution of illicit substances—anabolic steroids, depressants, hallucinogens, narcotics, and stimulants—and some chemicals used to produce controlled substances. As public health threats from other substances became known, the act was amended. In its infancy, the Controlled Substances Act was enforced by the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs under the Department of Justice (DOJ).

In 1973, US president Richard M. Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) within the DOJ to centralize efforts to combat substance abuse. Interagency rivalry and the necessity of coordinating investigation and prosecution efforts were among the reasons cited for the creation of the DEA. In announcing the DEA, Nixon declared the United States’ global war on drugs.

As the war on drugs continued, investigators developed intelligence units and technology to aid agents. Laboratories were built and staffed to support the DEA’s efforts. The DEA has continued to monitor substance abuse developments and to respond to emerging trends. In 2011, for example, the DEA took action against three synthetic cathinones, widely called bath salts, following alarming and increasing reports of abuse of the substances.

Classification and Penalties

There are five classifications of controlled substances. Laws mandate the penalties for crimes of trafficking based in part on the classification, or schedule, of the drugs, and in some cases, as with trafficking marijuana, on the amount of drug confiscated. Penalties may include incarceration and fines. Each state sets its own penalties for sale and possession of these substances within the federal guidelines.

Schedule I drugs are classified as substances with high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in the United States. The law requires that these drugs be tightly controlled, including mandating security for manufacturing and storing them, and establishing quotas and licensing guidelines. Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, marijuana, peyote, and ecstasy.

Schedule II substances may have accepted medical use and high potential for abuse; they also are likely to lead to severe physical or psychological dependence. Methadone, oxycodone, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and cocaine are examples of schedule II drugs.

Schedule III drugs include anabolic steroids, codeine with aspirin, and some barbiturates; these substances have less potential for abuse than schedule I and II drugs, have accepted medical uses, and have some potential for dependence.

Schedule IV and V substances have low potential for abuse or dependence and also have accepted medical uses. Valium and Xanax are among the schedule IV drugs. Over-the-counter medicines, such as cough medicines with less than 200 milligrams of codeine per 100 milliliters, are examples of schedule V drugs.

Much of the federal legislation regarding illegal substances pertains to alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. Persons who have been convicted of drug offenses may lose some federal benefits, such as grants and loans, and assistance including food stamps and Social Security benefits. A college or university student receiving federal financial aid, for example, could lose the aid if convicted of a drug offense; the penalty could be temporary for a first offense of possession, but permanent following multiple offenses.

The Controlled Substances Act also includes prohibitions and penalties for selling drugs to minors or near schools and other locations. Federal penalties are often more severe than those for crimes prosecuted at the state level. Local jurisdictions also may pass laws pertaining to drug possession and trafficking.

Current Legislative Issues

Substance abuse issues continue to arise as chemists develop new synthetic drugs and as others experiment with substances. Such issues often develop in other countries and eventually arrive in the United States. Drug enforcement authorities are continually monitoring and responding to developments.

Designer Drugs

One example of a developing issue is the collection of designer drugs commonly called bath salts, which were first seen in Europe. Hospitals and health care workers reported sharp increases in the number of patients being seen for the effects of bath salts beginning in 2009 and escalating in 2011. These designer drugs were being used for their psychoactive properties.

Under the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 the US attorney general has the authority to temporarily place substances into schedule I for up to one year. The DEA took action on bath salts in 2011; an order in October temporarily scheduled the bath salt substances into schedule I because the drugs were deemed threats to public safety. The following year, President Barack Obama signed a bill into law that banned the active ingredients of many types of synthetic drugs, including bath salts. However, by 2015, concerns had risen over the increased use of flakka, a synthetic drug similar to bath salts but deemed even more dangerous.

Misuse of Prescription Medicine

Many people who misuse prescription medicine believe that these substances are safe because they are prescribed by doctors. Some people take a larger dose than was recommended because they believe more is better, while others take the medication to induce euphoria. The latter is an example of drug abuse.

Misuse and abuse of prescription medication can cause harm or death. AAccording to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 15 million people in the United States age twelve years and older used prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes in 2014. Among the most common prescription drugs abused are oxycodone, Valium, amphetamine, methamphetamine, and barbiturates.

Penalties for prescription drug abuse vary by state. North Carolina, for instance, mandates prison sentences of seventy to eighty-four months for anyone with more than 4 grams of opium, opium derivatives, or heroin. A person illegally in possession of six Vicodin pills, for example, would be in prison for up to seven years. Penalties increase with the amount of the drug a person has. In contrast, someone caught in North Carolina with more than 10 pounds of marijuana could be sentenced to twenty-five to thirty months in prison.

Prenatal Exposure

According to data from the SAMHSA, for the years 2012 and 2013, 5.4 percent of pregnant girls and women age fifteen to forty-four years, including 8.6 percent of women age eighteen to twenty-five years, admitted to some kind of current illicit drug use. A number of states require health care professionals to screen infants for prenatal drug exposure, and many states go further, requiring that women suspected of prenatal substance abuse be reported to child protective services. Federal laws such as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, however, regard such actions as referrals for treatment and investigation of child safety issues, not grounds for criminal prosecution.

Eighteen US states classify substance abuse during pregnancy as child abuse as of 2015. Some states also require actions including reporting parents to authorities. Responses to substance abuse also vary widely from state to state; some make treatment for pregnant women a priority, others make furnishing drugs to pregnant women crimes. Women who have been charged criminally for prenatal actions often face charges of child endangerment or abuse, fetal murder or manslaughter, or illegal drug delivery to a minor (via umbilical cord), depending on the state.

Federal Alcohol Laws, State Discretion

All fifty states have adopted some federal alcohol laws, such as the law making it illegal to operate motor vehicles with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above 0.08. Most states have adopted the administrative license revocation law, which suspends licenses of those who fail the BAC test.

Several states have adopted the federal law making driving under the influence with a minor child in the vehicle a separate offense or increasing the penalty for doing so. Another federal law mandating jail for a second offense of driving under the influence has been adopted by forty-six states. By 1987, all fifty states had laws making age twenty-one years the legal drinking age; national statistics indicated that per capital consumption of alcohol dropped considerably.


Campo-Flores, Arian. "Potent New Stimulant Flakka Ravages Florida." Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones, 12 Aug. 2015. Web. 30 Oct .2015.

Gray, James. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do about It. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2011. Print.

Haggin, Patience. "Obama Signs Federal Ban on 'Bath Salt' Drugs." Time. Time, 10 July 2012. Web. 30 Oct. 2015.

Lyon, Joshua. Pill Head: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print.

Valverde, Mariana. Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom. New York: Cambridge UP, 1998. Print.

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