The Laws Surrounding Using Drugs Without a Prescription

Prescription pill bottles and medication
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You may have heard that using and sharing prescription drugs is legal. Some people believe that if they get pills from their family's medicine cabinet instead of a drug dealer, for instance, 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 these medications 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 People Try Prescription Drugs

People may misuse prescription drugs because there's less of a stigma than there is with illicit drugs. Additionally, if they are in the household medicine cabinet, they may be easy for other members of the family, including teenagers, to access. Since they're prescribed by a doctor, there's a perception that they are safer than "street drugs."

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

Commonly Misused Drugs

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) 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:

Prescription Drug Laws

Prescription drugs are considered controlled substances. The 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 your 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.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. Title 21 United States Code (USC) controlled substances act (Section 829).

  2. Fleary SA, Heffer RW, McKyer ELJ. Understanding nonprescription and prescription drug misuse in late adolescence/young adulthood. J Addict. 2013;2013. doi;10.1155/2013/709207

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Misuse of prescription drugs research report.

  4. The New York State Senate. Section 3345: Possession of controlled substances by ultimate users original container.

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.