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Is Xanax A Controlled Substance?

Dr. Alan Weiner MD

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Alan Weiner, MD

March 19, 2019

Xanax is labeled as a Schedule IV substance because it has the potential to be abused and may even become addictive. Using Xanax without a prescription can lead to criminal charges that may affect someone for life.

Xanax (alprazolam) is a Schedule IV controlled substance, classified under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Schedule IV drugs are considered to have a low potential for abuse and a low tendency toward dependence, but this does not mean they are safe when used outside of prescription guidelines.

What Is A Controlled Substance?

A controlled substance is a drug that may be abused and can lead to addiction. The Controlled Substances Act was put in place to reduce drug trafficking, manufacturing, and illegal possession. Many of the drugs that are regulated by this act also have medical benefits and are legally prescribed, but are unlawful to use without a prescription.

The goal is to allow individuals access to medications that improve their physical and mental health while also preventing these medications from being abused. There are several levels of classification within the Controlled Substances Act, from illegal street drugs to commonly used cold medications.

The five drug schedules are as follows:

  • Schedule I: Illegal drugs not approved for medical use that is highly abused and addictive.
  • Schedule II: Prescription drugs that have a high potential to be abused and are likely to lead to addiction.
  • Schedule III: Prescription drugs that have a moderate potential to be abused and may lead to addiction.
  • Schedule IV: Prescription drugs that have a low potential to be abused and are less likely to lead to addiction.
  • Schedule V: Drugs with a lower potential for abuse and addiction than Schedule IV substances that may be obtained by prescription or behind-the-counter.

Why Is Xanax A Controlled Substance?

Xanax (alprazolam) is an anti-anxiety medication with a short onset of action, which means it takes effect quickly. The fast relief from symptoms like social anxiety and panic attacks leads many people to abuse this drug.

Xanax is also a short-acting benzodiazepine, so it does not stay in the body for long. Some people experience rebound anxiety between doses, which causes them to take Xanax more often.

Research has found that benzodiazepines (“benzos”) lose their effect over time because most people quickly build a tolerance to them. If someone continues to increase their dosage and frequency of taking Xanax, their risk for developing a physical dependence and mental addiction increases.

Xanax is also very dangerous when combined with alcohol or other central nervous system depressants, like opioids and different benzodiazepines. Abusing Xanax alone or with other substances raised the risk of overdose and death.

For all of these reasons, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies Xanax as a controlled substance.

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The Difference Between Prescription Drugs And Controlled Substances

Not all prescription drugs are controlled substances. Antibiotics, for example, can only be obtained by prescription but are not regulated like Xanax (alprazolam) is. Controlled substances are specific drugs that can lead to dependence and addiction.

In 1951, an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was passed that defined which drugs required a doctor’s approval and which did not. The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 determined which substances came with criminal charges when used outside of prescription guidelines.

Prescription Drug Monitoring For Xanax (Alprazolam)

In many states, controlled substances like Xanax (alprazolam) are part of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs). These programs require participating doctors to enter prescriptions into a database where they can be accessed by other healthcare providers.

Keeping this record prevents some people from obtaining multiple prescriptions (“doctor shopping”). It also raises a red flag for individuals who may be abusing Xanax so their doctor can help them taper off the drug or switch to a longer-acting benzodiazepine.

While prescription drug monitoring may prevent people from becoming dependent on controlled substances like Xanax, prescriptions are not the only way to obtain these drugs. Xanax can be purchased online without a prescription and imported from another country. Illegal trafficking makes the consequences of abusing controlled substances even more important.

Consequences For Using Xanax Without A Prescription

If someone is found with Xanax (alprazolam) in their possession but they do not have a prescription, they will face criminal charges. The severity of punishment depends on state laws as well as how many previous offenses they have had.

The consequences for illicit possession of Xanax may include:

  • A fine ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars
  • Imprisonment for up to a few years
  • Suspension of driver’s license
  • Diversion (drug classes or rehab programs)
  • Court-ordered drug rehabilitation
  • Probation

Possessing Xanax with the intent to sell it is a much more serious offense. Fines for trafficking a Schedule IV substance can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. A person may spend five years in prison for a first offense and ten years for a second offense, according to the Congressional Research Service.

How To Safely Dispose Of Controlled Substances Like Xanax

If someone does not finish a Xanax prescription, there are ways that they can dispose of it to prevent it from being a danger to others. The excess pills should not be sold or given away, even to someone who has their own Xanax prescription. Doctors monitor how much Xanax each patient takes in order to keep them safe, so their own prescription is all they need.

If Xanax is left around the house, there is a chance that someone will access it and abuse it. To prevent this, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises mixing the drugs with something inedible like dirt or coffee grounds, sealing them in a plastic bag, and throwing them in the trash. Some drugs that are especially dangerous may recommend immediate flushing.

Another option for safe disposal is a prescription drug take-back program. The DEA hosts periodic take-back events throughout the country, and some medical facilities offer safe disposal as well. Getting rid of unused Xanax safely can prevent drug abuse.

Treatment Options For Xanax Abuse And Addiction

If someone is abusing Xanax and concerned about the legal consequences of their actions, they may benefit from seeking help. Though Xanax is classified as a Schedule IV substance, many people become addicted to it.

Treatment for Xanax addiction usually starts with medical detox, which keeps a person safe through the withdrawal process. Once the drug is cleared from someone’s system, they can begin an individualized treatment program.

These programs address things in an individual’s life that contribute to substance abuse and work to improve thought patterns to prevent unhealthy behavior. They generally include counseling, behavioral therapy, life skills training, and various other evidence-based therapies. A multifaceted treatment plan deals with all the areas that can lead to relapse so each individual can experience lasting recovery.

Congressional Research Service - Maximum Fines and Terms of Imprisonment for Violation of the Federal Controlled Substances Act and Related Laws

U.S. Department of Justice - Title 21 United States Code (USC) Controlled Substances Act

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration - Drug Scheduling

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