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The history of state and federal drug schedules

| Oct 26, 2020 | Criminal Defense

A primary factor in the severity of drug charges in the U.S. is the schedule of the drug in question. Georgia, like other states, abides by its own schedules of controlled substances, which it models after federal schedules.

But where did these classifications come from? Understanding this requires a quick look at the evolution of drug laws in the U.S.

Early drug laws

As the Congressional Research Service explains, through the first century and a half of U.S. history, there were essentially no laws prohibiting drug use. In that time, Americans freely used opium and cocaine recreationally, and doctors prescribed morphine and cocaine for pain. Many believed that the federal government did not have the right to interfere on such concerns.

All of the early federal attempts to control drug abuse in the U.S. focused on taxation and registration. Hence, some of the first federal laws concerning drug use were the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914, which taxed cocaine and opium and required distributors to register with the Department of the Treasury, and the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937, which enacted similar measures on marijuana.

It was the states who first criminalized drug use — all of them outlawing marijuana shortly after the tax act. They did this in part due to growing public outrage, propaganda and misinformation about the plant.

It was not until the 1950s that the federal government enacted legislation to criminalize drug use and trafficking, but even these early laws included harsh sentences, going so far as to establish a death sentence for cocaine trafficking to youth. Yet, the Treasury retained control over drug enforcement well into the 1960s, when they finally shifted to the Department of Justice.

Controlled Substances Act

The modern concept of drug schedules came with President Nixon and the War on Drugs. In 1970, the federal government decided that many substances with potential for abuse also had legitimate medical purposes. They also acknowledged that the risk of some drugs far outweighed that of others.

In an attempt to allow Americans to access certain substances for health care purposes while also safeguarding against drug abuse, Congress enacted the Controlled Substances Act, ranking drugs according to whether or not they had legitimate medical use, how dangerous the drugs could potentially be and their propensity for abuse and addiction. Congress classified these drugs accordingly into five schedules. Nixon established the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 1973 to manage the new drug laws.

Georgia and state drug laws

Georgia enacted its current drug schedules in 1990 in response to the DEA schedules, which is why they are very similar in classification. Georgia still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug but makes an exception for small amounts of it to be a misdemeanor.

As some states legalize or deregulate scheduled substances that the federal government still prohibits, some conflict can ensue between state law enforcement and the DEA. However, the vast majority of federal drug crime arrests involve trafficking, while state arrests account for nearly all possession charges.

Drug schedules in the 21st century

Looking at the schedules now, some of the decisions involved can appear arbitrary or misinformed. The widespread propaganda surrounding marijuana in the 20th century, for example, resulted in its classification as more dangerous than fentanyl and methamphetamine, with no medical usefulness.

The legal community at large and the American Bar Association has pushed against the criminalization of drug use from the outset, preferring instead to treat drug abuse as a health concern. Still, these schedules remain today with some additions and modifications based on analogs, synthetics and discoveries. And they make up the framework for drug charges and sentences.