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, not only is it against the law, it's extremely dangerous.

Why Teens May 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, and treat it as seriously as if they caught their teen with another illegal street drug.

Federal and State 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, including 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.

When Prescription Drugs Are Illegal

No matter what your middle school or high school friends tell you, using and sharing prescription drugs can be just as illegal as possession of certain street drugs. And taking drugs not prescribed for you is very dangerous. You have no idea what effects a drug may have on you.

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 legal.

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

Additional Reading

  • National Council on Patient Information and Education, "Myth Busters: 6 Myths about Teens and Prescription Drug Abuse (PDF)." November 2009.

  • U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, Title 21, Chapter 13."