4.4.2 The United States

The United States #

At a federal level, the primary drug-relevant statute is the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This defines five Schedules (classifications), with various specifications regarding which drug is included in each. This is largely overseen by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The DEA presents these schedules as follows (current as of 2017):


Schedule I drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Some examples of Schedule I drugs are:

Heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), methaqualone, and peyote


Schedule II drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. These drugs are also considered dangerous. Some examples of Schedule II drugs are:

Combination products with less than 15 milligrams of hydrocodone per dosage unit (Vicodin), cocaine, methamphetamine, methadone, hydromorphone (Dilaudid), meperidine (Demerol), oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin


Schedule III drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence. Schedule III drugs abuse potential is less than Schedule I and Schedule II drugs but more than Schedule IV. Some examples of Schedule III drugs are:

Products containing less than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit (Tylenol with codeine), ketamine, anabolic steroids, testosterone


Schedule IV drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence. Some examples of Schedule IV drugs are:

Xanax, Soma, Darvon, Darvocet, Valium, Ativan, Talwin, Ambien, Tramadol


Schedule V drugs, substances, or chemicals are defined as drugs with lower potential for abuse than Schedule IV and consist of preparations containing limited quantities of certain narcotics. Schedule V drugs are generally used for antidiarrheal, antitussive, and analgesic purposes. Some examples of Schedule V drugs are:

Cough preparations with less than 200 milligrams of codeine or per 100 milliliters (Robitussin AC), Lomotil, Motofen, Lyrica, Parepectolin


Clearly, on the basis of relative harm these classifications are in themselves ridiculous, but they form the framework for a punitive system which is widely considered to be vindictive and draconian.

As ludicrous as this may appear to most Europeans, US law even creates a penal regime for the possession and distribution of items such as bongs, pipes and rolling papers, which are collectively referred to as paraphernalia.

Even the most basic of items are defined as drug paraphernalia

Even the most basic of items are defined as drug paraphernalia

Layered on top of all this is another disturbing aspect known as mandatory minimum sentencing. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws dictate minimum sentences for certain offences, which are imposed regardless of individual or extenuating circumstances. Many of these offences carry prison terms of years, and sometimes, decades.

The picture in the United States is further complicated by the partial judicial autonomy of the individual states. This creates enormous geographic variation in terms of sentencing. Findlaw.Com cites the following example to demonstrate this tendency:

“For example, Kentucky, which has adopted similar mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, has some of the toughest provisions. For simple possession, first offenders get 2 to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000. In contrast, California has some of the lightest drug possession sentences: between $30 and $500 in fines and/or 15 to 180 days in jail”

In theory, where state and federal laws disagree the supremacy clause applies (which is part of Article VI of the Constitution) and federal law is supposed to prevail. This currently creates a somewhat discretionary standoff in terms of a number of drug related situations, not least with respect to cannabis legalisation. It remains to be seen how this will eventually unfold.


Unfortunately, most US citizens continue to be subject to a judicial regime which is firmly embedded within the demonstrable excesses and cruelty of a culture perpetrated by the war on drugs. Mass incarceration and patently excessive sentencing of non-violent drug offenders continues unabated.

On this occasion, statistics do not lie. For example, with just 5% of the world’s population, the United States accounts for approximately 25% of the global prison population.

The numbers themselves are equally stark. In 2014 there were more than 1.5 million drugs arrests, of which more than 80% were for possession only. Headline statements like these are just the tip of a very insidious and inhumane iceberg.

It therefore almost goes without saying that if you are a US resident you should take all sensible measures to reduce the prospects of becoming a victim of this madness.


If you do fall foul of the law, and are confronted by the police or arrested, the following guidance is commonly cited on the Internet, and may be of use. Note, however, that this does not constitute legal advice, which should be sought independently.

  1. First and foremost, try to relax and stay calm. Give yourself the best opportunity to think clearly by avoiding panic or excessive stress.

    The following statement will typically be issued on arrest:

    “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”

  2. Know your rights. These include:

    • The 5th Amendment right to remain silent. Note that it is almost always in your best interests to do so, particularly as anything you say may be subsequently used against you. A common method of dealing with this is to request a lawyer in response to every question. Do exercise this right.

    • You have the right to have a lawyer present while you are questioned. One will be appointed for you if you cannot afford one.

    Note that if you are not informed of these facts your lawyer can ask that any statements you made are not used in court (this is known as your Miranda right).

  3. Call a lawyer as soon as you are able. If you don’t have or know one, call family or a friend and ask them to find one for you as soon as possible. Bear in mind that your call could be eavesdropped, so be careful what you say.

    If you cannot find a lawyer and have to wait for one to be appointed, either prior to a court appearance or by a judge, do not forget your right to remain silent in the interim.

    Discussion between you and your lawyer is confidential. When you have consulted your lawyer, consider the advice and information given, and try to make the most rational and sensible decisions on how to proceed.

  4. Respectfully deny consent to a search of your home, as per the Fourth Amendment. A search is only lawful if you have consented, or the police officer has a warrant, or has a valid reason (reasonable suspicion / probable cause, which usually but not always relates to a vehicle search).

    Having stated this, the police do have the right to:

    • Search your belongings, body and clothing (which again requires reasonable suspicion)
    • Search your vehicle if you are in it (subject to probable cause, based upon what the police officer sees through the window, your conduct and/or answers to questions)
    • Fingerprint you
    • Ask you to undertake a test (such as walking in a straight line), or ask for a sample of your breath, blood, etc.
  5. If the police have abused you or have committed any infraction, seek to collect names and addresses of any witnesses when you are able, and gather any other information that may assist.

    Do not react or respond to misconduct, or provoke retaliation. It is far better to address these matters subsequently, via a lawsuit.

Finally, police confrontation or arrest can occur at any time, so it is advised that you learn as much as possible in terms of your rights and the legal issues relevant to your location and your situation. Ideally, also identify a legal firm or multiple legal firms to use should you need them.

This isn’t the most exciting pursuit in the world, but it may be one of the most important, should the worst happen.


The impact of the war on drugs on incarceration in the United States:

[Source: Wikipedia, via Sarefo (Public Domain)]

[Source: Wikipedia, via Sarefo (Public Domain)]

The effects of mass incarceration and the war on drugs on public health:

[Source: NVSS, CDC.gov]

[Source: NVSS, CDC.gov]

The wholesale destruction of lives and families could hardly be clearer.


Those incarcerated are real people, having had their real lives destroyed by manifestly unjust laws and a morally bankrupt pursuit. To illustrate the human cost of this unremitting and ongoing tragedy, this segment puts some names to the stats.

When I began to consider this issue, two relatively high profile victims immediately sprung to my mind:

Ross Ulbricht (Double Life Sentence Plus Forty Years)
Lindsay Sandiford (Death, Awaiting Execution in Bali)

I recall being absolutely appalled when I first read about these two cases.

More recently, whilst searching the Internet for more I quickly found the following cannabis related victims, courtesy of Rolling Stone magazine:

Fate Vincent Winslow (Life Without Parole)
Michael Alonzo Thompson (40 to 60 Years)
Crystal Munoz (18 Years)
Andy Cox (Life Without Parole)

Then I encountered CAN-DO, a non-profit foundation that advocates Clemency for All Non-violent Drug Offenders (www.CanDoClemency.com). This group educates, campaigns and supports, and literally does put names to faces. I picked a few more from this website, at random.

John Bolen (Life Without Parole)
Evelyn Bozon Pappa (Life Without Parole)
Charles “Duke” Tanner (30 Years)
Eva Palma Atencio (Life Without Parole)
Michael Bryant (Life)
John Knock (Life Without Parole)

There are just so many.

Think of these people next week, next month, next year: whatever you are doing, these victims and their families will still be suffering. More will have joined them.

If you are able, it may help to write, so that they know that someone is at least thinking about them. If you can find time, join others and campaign to change laws and to free the broken and incarcerated, wherever they may be.

A reminder of the enormous scale of this cruelty (from DrugPolicy.org):

Amount spent annually in the U.S. on the war on drugs: $58+ billion Number of arrests in 2017 in the U.S. for drug law violations: 1,632,921 Number of drug arrests that were for possession only: 1,394,514 (85.4 percent)