The growing use and addition of opioids has been declared an epidemic. The rate of hospitalizations, deaths, and arrests relating to the drug continues to grow exponentially. There have been efforts to combat this by both the federal government and states by limiting opioid prescriptions, monitoring and even suing some pharmaceutical companies, and giving harsher criminal penalties in opioid cases.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs that are also called narcotics. They are made either by collecting opium from poppy plants or by being created synthetically in labs. Their main medicinal use is for pain relief. However, they can produce a variety of other neurological effects like creating a drug high. They can also be highly addictive and hard to stop using.  

There are several prescription opioids on the market. Well-known ones include Vicodin, OxyContin, Fentanyl, Morphine, and Tramadol. These are generally prescribed by doctors for a limited amount of time after a major injury or surgery. They can also be given to people with certain types of illnesses like cancer patients dealing with the side effects and pain of chemotherapy. Finally, they are also sometimes prescribed for long-term but low-dose use for chronic pain sufferers. Prescriptions for this type of use can be controversial.   

Non-prescription opioids are illegal. There are no over-the-counter opioid medicines. These types of drugs include heroin and off-label use of other opioids. This can also include giving your opioid prescription to someone else so that they can use the medicine. Opioids are considered a controlled substance and misuse of them is regulated and violations are criminally punished.

What is the Problem with Opioids?

The main risks of opioid use are dependence and addiction. Opioid dependence is when someone repeatedly takes the drug. Over time, this causes their brain to function normally while on the medication but abnormally if they stop taking it. This causes them to either need more medication or for them to go into a withdrawal of the drug. If this happens, they may experience dizziness, irritability, jitters, anxiety, or muscle cramps.  

Opioid addiction is more serious. The long-term use of opioids causes daily withdrawal symptoms that are more severe than those who don’t have a dependence on the drug. It also causes the person to seek more and more of the drug to feel normal. This compulsive drug-seeking behavior can cause them to act irrationally. It may also cause them to break the law or partake in other types of risky behavior. Extended drug use can physically alter the mind and completely change someone’s personality.

Criminal Penalties in Opioid Cases

Opioid laws differ federally and by state. Regardless, you will face harsh penalties, high fines, and jail time if you are convicted of an opioid crime. Some things are similar at both federal and state levels– for example, the use of heroin is always illegal. The non-prescription use of prescription medication or giving your prescription medication to others is also always illegal.

Drug possession charges are usually determined by the type and amount of drugs involved. It also depends on if you are being charged by the state or the federal government. Drugs at the federal level are defined by schedules of controlled substances. For example, schedule I includes drugs that have no medicinal use like heroin and LSD. Schedule II contains opioids that have a high risk of addiction like fentanyl and morphine.

Higher schedule drugs carry harsher penalties than lower schedule ones. For example, heroin, a schedule 1 drug, would more than likely have a stronger punishment than illegal possession of Xanax, a schedule IV drug. States generally mimic or are similar to federal laws. California is comparable but does have some distinctions. A 2019 law took effect recently to make California’s drug schedule better match the federal one.

You will more than likely be charged with a felony if you are arrested for opioid misuse or possession of higher scheduled drugs. This could mean jail time of up to three or more years and high fines. If you are in possession of a lower scheduled drug like Xanax, you may be charged with a misdemeanor. This may result in up to a year in jail, probation, or repeated random court-ordered drug tests.  

Finally, the amount of drugs on your possession also matters. Your charges will be lower if you have less of the drug on you. However, having a lot of the medication may lead to more serious charges like intent to distribute or trafficking. You could also be charged with constructive possession. This is when the drug is found somewhere near or in a place that you can exercise control of like your car. If convicted in California, you could be fined up to $20,000 and you could spend two to five years in jail.