When Can Controlled Substances Lead to Arrest?

California’s Controlled Substance Laws, Explained

Drug crimes can be complex and confusing in California. Just because a drug is technically legal doesn’t mean Californians can’t reap serious criminal penalties for drug-related activities, from possessing too much cannabis on your person to prescription drug crimes.

In California, the unlawful possession, distribution, or sale of a controlled substance can result in severe consequences in criminal court. What are California’s controlled substance laws? In this blog, we’ll review common types of controlled substances and their associated penalties for misuse in the Golden State.

What Is a Controlled Substance?

In California, controlled substances are drugs that are regulated by law due to their potential for abuse, addiction, and negative health effects. They are categorized into five different schedules based on their medical uses, potential for abuse, and safety profiles. While medical professionals can lawfully prescribe controlled substances to manage pain, treat medical conditions, and address mental health disorders, these substances are subject to strict regulations to prevent misuse.

Consider these common examples of controlled substances in California:

  • Oxycodone: A pain reliever often prescribed for severe pain management
  • Hydrocodone: A painkiller commonly prescribed for moderate to severe pain
  • Alprazolam (Xanax): Used to treat anxiety and panic disorders
  • Diazepam (Valium): Prescribed for anxiety, muscle spasms, and as a sedative
  • Methylphenidate (Ritalin): A stimulant used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Adderall: A stimulant prescribed for ADHD and narcolepsy
  • Codeine-containing cough syrup: Used to treat cough and mild pain
  • Fentanyl: A potent synthetic opioid used for severe pain management
  • Lorazepam (Ativan): Prescribed for short-term relief of anxiety symptoms
  • Tramadol: A painkiller often prescribed for moderate to moderately severe pain

There are three primary types of controlled substances, including:


Opioids are a class of drugs derived from opium or synthetically formulated to mimic its effects. They are potent pain relievers and interact with the body's opioid receptors to alleviate pain, induce euphoria, and suppress coughing. However, opioids carry a high risk of misuse that can lead to dependence, addiction, and overdose.


Depressants are drugs that depress or slow down the body’s central nervous system. They have medical applications for various conditions, such as anxiety disorders, insomnia, muscle spasms, and as anesthesia before surgery. However, depressants are often misused for their calming effects and sense of euphoria, such as taking larger doses than prescribed or using prescriptions for recreational purposes.


Unlike depressants, stimulants increase the activity of the central nervous system, resulting in heightened alertness, energy, and elevated mood. They can range from prescriptions for certain medical conditions, like ADHD and narcolepsy, to illicit drugs, like cocaine. Stimulant drugs have a high capacity for abuse, as some can develop a dependence on them for their performance-enhancing abilities.

California’s Drug Schedule

Controlled substances are categorized into five schedules based on their potential for abuse, medical uses, and overall safety, with Schedule I containing the most dangerous and least accepted drugs and Schedule V containing substances with lower potential for abuse.

  • Schedule I: Substances in this class have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, and lack accepted safety for use. Examples include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy (MDMA).
  • Schedule II: These substances have a high potential for abuse, accepted medical uses with severe restrictions, and may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. Examples include cocaine, methamphetamine, and oxycodone.
  • Schedule III: Substances in this Schedule have an accepted medical use, potential for abuse less than Schedule I or II drugs, and may lead to moderate to low physical dependence or high psychological dependence. Examples include ketamine and anabolic steroids.
  • Schedule IV: Controlled substances in this class have a lower potential for abuse compared to Schedule III drugs, accepted medical uses, and limited potential for physical and psychological dependence. Examples include Xanax, Valium, and Ativan.
  • Schedule V: These substances have the lowest potential for abuse among controlled substances, accepted medical uses, and contain limited quantities of certain narcotics. Examples include cough preparations with small amounts of codeine.

5 Ways Controlled Substances Can Lead to Arrest

Individuals can face various criminal charges for controlled substance violations, ranging from possession to distribution. Some common charges include:

  1. Possession of a Controlled Substance – Possession of a controlled substance is one of the most common drug offenses. It involves knowingly having a controlled substance in your possession without a valid prescription or other legal authorization. The type and quantity of the controlled substance can impact the severity of the charges and potential penalties.
  2. Transportation of a Controlled Substance – Transportation of a controlled substance refers to the act of moving drugs from one location to another. This offense can involve various means of transportation, including vehicles, public transportation, or even carrying drugs on foot. The intent to deliver or distribute the controlled substance is an important factor in determining the severity of the charges.
  3. Possession of a Controlled Substance for Sale– Possession of a controlled substance for sale refers to having drugs in your possession with the intent to sell or distribute them. This offense typically involves larger quantities of drugs than simple possession and requires evidence that the possession was for the purpose of selling or distributing the controlled substances.
  4. Manufacturing or Cultivation of Controlled Substances – Manufacturing or cultivating controlled substances involves the production or cultivation of drugs, such as methamphetamine, marijuana, or ecstasy. This offense encompasses activities like operating a drug lab, growing marijuana plants, or manufacturing drugs using chemical processes.
  5. Driving Under the Influence of Drugs (DUID) – In California, it’s illegal to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs, even if that drug is a controlled substance that was lawfully prescribed to you. This applies so long as the prescription medication impairs your ability to operate the vehicle safely.

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In California, a criminal conviction can derail your reputation and future. Contact us online to consult with our experienced criminal defense lawyer.

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