Understanding Drug Schedule Classifications

Drug Schedules

Put into effect in October 1970, the Controlled Substances Act establishes five schedules of “controlled substances”, substances with dangerous or negative effects on the human mind and body, to be regulated for the safety of the public. While every drug on the Controlled Substances Act’s list of schedules is dangerous, the various schedules do not sort drugs based on danger or addictiveness but based on how the government is regulating said substances and based on the possible medical uses of such substances.

The act was originally signed into law by Richard Nixon, as part of his portion of the War on Drugs. Drugs are categorized into the five schedules by the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The Controlled Substances Act simply creates the schedules – the designation of individual controlled substances and distribution into the schedules can be updates at any time, if the need arises for a different classification.

Although drug schedule classifications are federal law, states do reserve the right to change the legality of controlled substances, as seen in recent developments regarding the legalization of marijuana. As of March 30, 2018, marijuana is legalized to some degree in over 30 states, despite being a schedule I drug. “To some degree” refers to specific restrictions that exist on a state-by-state basis: Louisiana, for example, has legalized only non-smoking forms of the drug, allowing the topical application and ingestion of THC, through oils and other processed forms. Some states do not allow marijuana use recreationally, in any form, but still offer prescriptions for severe conditions such as epilepsy.

Despite how a drug may be handled by the FDA, DEA, and the schedules of the Controlled Substances Act, it is important to research how your state specifically handles any given controlled substance to understand how drug use is treated in your state.


What is Drug Scheduling?

Drug scheduling involves evaluating a drug, and then determining where it falls on the list of schedules, if at all. Relevant factors include potential for abuse, potential for medical use, and potential for research or study in the development of different and safer alternatives or deductions.

The way drugs are scheduled has always been and continues to be a matter of great debate. One thing, to be sure, is that schedule I drugs are the most controlled and regulated drugs in the country, treated with the utmost care and caution. Schedule V drugs, on the other hand, are considered a much lower risk – albeit still risky enough to warrant regulation.


Schedule I

Schedule I drugs are substances that are psychoactive, considered highly dangerous and addictive in nature (i.e. a very high potential for drug abuse), with no “currently accepted” medical use. This means that while the drug may possess some form of medical application, it is not used as such due to excessive risks or other dangers. Schedule I drugs include:

  • Heroin
  • LSD
  • Marijuana (Cannabis)
  • Ecstasy (MDM)
  • Quaalude (Methaqualone)
  • Peyote (Mescaline)
  • Khat (Cathinone)
  • Bath Salts (Synthetic Cathinone)
  • Magic Mushrooms (Psilocybin)
  • Spice (Synthetic Cannabis)
  • And many others.


Schedule II

Schedule II drugs also possess a very high potential for drug abuse, albeit with certain accepted medical uses. These drugs are still highly regulated and are often sold and acquired illegally but may be prescribed to help patients cope with severe pain, and certain conditions. These drugs include common painkillers, anti-anxiety medication, and ADHD drugs like Adderall, all of which have commonly accepted medical use but may still lead to a severe case of drug abuse. Schedule II drugs include:

  • Vicodin
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone
  • Fentanyl
  • Adderall
  • Ritalin
  • Morphine
  • Opium
  • Phenylacetone
  • And many others.

Schedule I and schedule II drugs are very similar in terms of both potential for drug abuse, with some drugs in schedule I being much less harmful than drugs in schedule II. However, they are sorted based mostly on medical validity. For example: fentanyl is arguably more addictive and dangerous than heroin but possesses the ability to help patients enjoy some quality of life while in palliative care, especially with incredibly painful forms of cancer and other terminal illnesses. Cocaine, while very addictive, can be used to help treat neurological conditions by testing the condition of a nerve. Amphetamine and methamphetamine both help boost focus and motivation, counteracting the symptoms of very severe cases of ADHD, helping people live better lives while struggling with their mental condition.


Schedule III

Schedule III drugs separate themselves from schedule I and II drugs by possessing a smaller potential for abuse, and acceptable medical use. Schedule III drugs may still be addictive, however not as addictive as both schedule I and II drugs. Schedule III drugs include:

  • Xyrem
  • Ketamine
  • Nalorphine
  • Lysergic acid (precursor of LSD)
  • Buprenorphine
  • Anabolic steroids
  • And others.


Schedule IV

Schedule IV drugs are classified as having a low potential for abuse, lower than schedule III, but still not wholly insignificant. Schedule IV drugs include:

  • Barbital
  • Diazepam
  • Tramadol
  • Xanax
  • Darvocet
  • And others.


Schedule V

Schedule V drugs have a small potential for drug abuse, and are thus still controlled substances, and are not to be sold over-the-counter. They are less dangerous than other controlled substances and require less regulation. Schedule V drugs include:

  • Ezogabine
  • Pyrovalerone
  • Pregabalin
  • And others.

It’s important to remember that all drugs within the schedules of the Controlled Substances Act possess a risk for drug abuse and are not to be taken lightly.


Schedules Don’t Determine Addictiveness

Schedule II drugs are not automatically less dangerous than schedule I drugs, and schedule I drugs are not automatically more dangerous according to all available research. While the FDA and DEA are federal authorities, more than half the country’s states have begun the process of allowing medical marijuana use, and the evidence in support of the drug’s medical application is fast growing. This does not change that marijuana is a drug with abuse potential, and a list of known risks, but it does contradict its classification as a schedule I drug.

Similarly, hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin are not physically addictive, albeit dangerous due to their sense-altering nature. They do not affect the brain like other addictive drugs do (except PCP, which is addictive). However, that does not change that their mind-altering properties make them very dangerous and could lead to destructive behavior. It is important to understand the legality of a given substance in your state and do research on how the substance affects the mind, and why it is a controlled substance to begin with.

If you’re struggling with an addiction to any drugs or alcohol, help is available. Contact us at (800) 208-1211 and see how we can help you overcome your addiction.