Prescription Drugs Legalities

Prescription medications (all classes discussed in this article) are legal under certain parameters in this and most other countries. What makes their use/abuse illegal is when those parameters are crossed or violated. Reasons can include illegal possession, distribution, and the selling of prescription drugs to outside users.

The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act determines how and when these drugs may be determined appropriate for use and by whom. In 1970, a new law determined classes of drugs, which are placed into five schedules: how and where they may be manufactured, how they are regulated and when and by whom they may be used. This law is called the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and it determines most of the federal, state and local laws governing the use and making of prescription medication in the U.S.

The agency assigned to oversee and preserve this law is the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It also regulates and reports testing of new drugs as they are created for use on and by people. This process may take several years or more. The regulating body follows the most recent laws as determined by the Federal Prescription Drug Marketing Act of 1987. This act allowed drug manufacturers to advertise their products openly on television and in magazine ads, a tactic not previously legal in the United States.

Some drugs are used by physicians for purposes other than those they are designed to treat, in other words, they are prescribed off-label. While this may be a common practice, it is not legal for the manufacturers to advertise this information. Each drug is designed and regulated for its intended purposes only. If it is recognized during clinical trials or in use thereafter to have beneficial side effects that are different than its initial purpose, it must be reformulated, packaged and distributed to fit those criteria. An example of this is the antidepressant/antianxiety drug Wellbutrin, which is also an effective aid in the cessation of smoking. Several doctors recognized the benefits of using this drug for smoking cessation and it was reintroduced under the name Zyban years later.

Prescription Drug Laws in the US

Nationwide, it is illegal to possess prescription medication for which the person has no prescription. It is also illegal to overprescribe medication to any single individual, and doing so can result in the the loss of one's medical license. It is illegal to travel with prescription medication without the labeled bottle or a copy of the label. It is illegal to buy, sell, or give away, barter or trade prescription medications by anyone. It is illegal to take a higher dose than indicated on the prescription or to take medications after the purpose for which they are prescribed. When prescriptions state that the medication may be taken “as needed,” the prescriber of the medication is liable for any overdose or overmedications.

It is illegal to mail or transport prescription drugs for any purpose. When traveling, it is important to know the regulations of the region to which you are traveling when taking prescription drugs.

Prescription Drug Laws in Canada

Canadian laws allow for medications to be sold to U.S. citizens with or without a prescription, as do Mexican laws. Since the FDA does not control the manufacture of those drugs, they warn U.S. citizens about using these drugs. It is legal for U.S. patients to buy drugs from Canada that are not available in the U.S., if they need them for particular treatments. The laws governing these exchanges can be tricky, but the practice has been going on for some time due to the lower costs of drugs on either side of the U.S. border. In the case of buying drugs in Mexico, it is completely illegal to bring those medications back into the U.S., under any circumstances. Canadian trade agreements with the U.S. agencies (FDA and DEA) vary on different medications. It is wise to seek specific legislation for each drug.

Prescription Drug Laws in UK

Laws in the United Kingdom vary from the U.S. While only prescribers may write prescriptions, which must be filled by a pharmacist, the legalities are much less strident about possessing prescription medications. The selling and filling of prescription medications is different in the UK, and specific information about legalities of certain drugs is important to check before traveling to that country.

Prescription Drug Possession Laws

Penalties for possession of prescription drugs are determined by federal agencies, according to the drug’s classification and schedule, as well as amount of the drug and previous criminal history of drug charges. Penalties for possession of prescription medications can range from 15 days to 20 years, depending on various factors. Fines also range, with the minimum fines being set at $1000.

Each state has laws governing fines and sentencing. Further information may be obtained at the United States Dept. of Justice's website, a resource for laws governing sales, transportation, abuse of prescription medications, and forging or stealing prescriptions.