Using Drugs Without a Prescription Is Illegal

Variety of Pills
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You may have heard that using and sharing prescription drugs is legal. Many teens believe that if they get pills from their family's medicine cabinet, instead of a street dealer, then it's not against the law.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are both federal and state laws that make using or sharing prescription drugs illegal. If you take a pill that was prescribed to someone else or give that pill to another person, it is against the law. It's also extremely dangerous.

Why Teens Try Prescription Drugs

Teens may abuse prescription drugs because there's less of a stigma than there is with street drugs. If there are prescription drugs in the household medicine cabinet, they may be easy for teens to get, and since they're prescribed by a doctor, there's a perception that these drugs are safer than street drugs.

But with the growing opioid epidemic, it's especially important for parents to curb any prescription drug abuse. They must treat it as seriously as if they caught their teen with an illegal street drug.

Commonly Misused Drugs

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines the misuse of drugs as "taking a medication in a manner or dose other than prescribed; taking someone else’s prescription, even if for a legitimate medical complaint such as pain; or taking a medication to feel euphoria (i.e., to get high)." The three classes of medication most commonly misused are:

  • Opioids: Pain medications including Demerol, morphine, Norco, codeine, Oxycontin, and Vicodin)
  • Central nervous system (CNS) depressants: Tranquilizers, sedatives, and hypnotics used for anxiety and sleep disorder treatment
  • Stimulants: Attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) medications including Ritalin, Adderall, and Dexedrine

Prescription Drug Laws

Prescription drugs are considered controlled substances. The U.S Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration, Title 21 Controlled Substances Act, makes it clear that the only legal way to access prescription drugs is to have a doctor's prescription. This law states that "no controlled substance ...  may be dispensed without the written prescription of a practitioner."

Sometimes even when a doctor does prescribe a drug, it may violate the law. For example, if a doctor writes a prescription for too many pills, either knowing that they are going to be resold or knowing that the amount is way too much medication for a single patient, that could be considered a criminal act.

Possession With Intent to Distribute

Some states have laws making it illegal for you to be in possession of your own prescription drugs under certain circumstances. This includes laws that make it illegal to carry around pills that are not in their labeled prescription bottle.

In other words, if you are carrying around pills that your doctor prescribed to you, but you have them loose in your pocket or purse, it may be considered illegal. The presumption may be that you are carrying them in that manner so that you can distribute them.

Dangers of Taking Medication Without a Prescription

Taking drugs not prescribed for you is very dangerous—even lethal. If the drug isn’t prescribed for you, you don't know what effects it may have. There are many variables that can put health at risk, including:

  • Short- and long-term side effects
  • Contradictions with certain health conditions
  • Interactions with foods, vitamins, supplements, or other drugs (prescription or recreational) you’re taking
  • Dosage for your size or weight, or titration (slowly increasing a dose to see how someone reacts to the drug)
  • Drug allergies
  • Expiration date of the drug

If you take drugs not prescribed to you and have an unexpected serious reaction, no one will know what you took, which can delay treatment. Using someone else's prescription drug can lead to overdose and increase your risk of prescription drug use disorder.

A Word From Verywell

No matter what your friends tell you, using and sharing prescription drugs can be just as illegal as possession of certain street drugs. Not only can taking prescription medications make you very sick, it can potentially land you in jail. Just because you got them out of your family's medicine cabinet doesn't make them safe or legal.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. Title 21 United States Code (US) Controlled Substances Act (Section 829).

  2. Volkow ND. Teen prescription drug abuse: A major health concern. Tenn Med. 2009;102(4):28-29.

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Misuse of prescription drugs. Updated December 2018.

  4. National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws. States prescription trafficking statutes. 2009.