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California: Prescription Drugs Without Script? (2024 Crime & Penalties)

In California, possession of prescription drugs without a prescription is illegal and treated as a serious offense. This falls under the category of possessing a controlled substance, which can include medications like painkillers, sedatives, and stimulants that are often prescribed for legitimate medical reasons.
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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

California Prescription Drug Offenses

Possession of Controlled Substances

According to McElfresh Law Inc. Under California Health and Safety Code §11350, it is illegal to possess any usable quantity of controlled substances [1]. This includes not only illicit drugs like heroin or cocaine but also prescription medications such as Vicodin if they are not legally prescribed to the individual possessing them. With the passage of Proposition 47 in November 2014, many drug possession offenses were reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors.

Those who qualify can be sentenced to up to a year in prison for a misdemeanor charge, though many may avoid jail time altogether if they are eligible for and successfully complete a drug diversion program. For those who do not qualify under proposition 47, they will be charged and sentenced depending on the amount of the drug and prior convictions – McElfresh Law Inc.

Possession With Intent to Sell

California’s Health and Safety Code §11351 outlaws the possession of controlled substances with the intent to sell. Legally prescribed medications are permissible to possess; however, selling them is unlawful. Being caught with the intention to distribute any amount of these drugs, regardless of whether they were prescribed, leads to a felony charge, with penalties based on the volume of drugs intended for sale.

Sale or Transportation of Controlled Substances

According to Health and Safety Code §11352, the sale or transportation of controlled substances across California is strictly illegal. This law targets drug trafficking activities but does not require the operation to be large-scale for charges to be applied. This means charges can arise from any activity that involves illegally transporting, selling, distributing, or importing controlled substances, including prescription drugs. Engaging in these activities is a felony and may incur more severe penalties if it involves moving substances from one county to another within California, or across state lines, potentially escalating to federal charges.

Usage of Prescription Drugs

Under Health and Safety Code §11550, using or being under the influence of controlled substances without a valid prescription is a misdemeanor. This statute applies to the use of prescription drugs like codeine, morphine, or hydrocodone when such use deviates from or exists without a lawful prescription.

Prescription Fraud Penalties in California

As prescription medications have advanced, they’ve also grown more potent and addictive. People legally prescribed medications like Vicodin or OxyContin can develop dependencies and seek additional prescriptions illegally. It’s unlawful for individuals to engage in doctor shopping, for physicians to prescribe medications without legitimate medical reasons, and for anyone to acquire prescription drugs through fraudulent means.

Under California’s Health and Safety Code 11173, it is illegal to acquire prescription drugs through fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, or the concealment of crucial facts. This law also bars posing as a pharmacist to obtain controlled substances and prohibits the forgery of prescription labels.

Furthermore, Health and Safety Code 11153 addresses the responsibilities of physicians in prescribing controlled substances. It mandates that prescriptions must be issued based on a legitimate medical purpose within the normal course of professional practice, outlawing prescriptions issued under illegitimate circumstances or for non-medical reasons.

Additionally, the alteration or forgery of prescriptions for narcotic drugs is specifically tackled under Health and Safety Code 11368, while counterfeiting prescription blanks is covered under Health & Safety Code 11162.5.

The penalties for these crimes in California vary based on the specifics of the case. Prescription drug fraud can be prosecuted as either a misdemeanor or a felony. For individuals, violations of Health & Safety Code Section 11173 could lead to up to three years in state prison or up to one year in county jail. Physicians found in violation of Health & Safety Code Section 11153 may face up to a year in state prison and fines up to $20,000.

Those charged with misdemeanors for prescription drug offenses often have the opportunity to participate in drug diversion programs, potentially avoiding jail time. However, individuals facing felony charges generally have fewer alternatives and face more severe legal consequences.

What to do if Your Prescription Medication is Stolen

Reporting a Lost or Stolen Prescription

According to Cardinal Bag Supplies, if your prescription medication is stolen, the initial step is to file a police report [2]. This action not only assists law enforcement in tracking where thefts occur but also aids in their prevention efforts. Moreover, obtaining a replacement prescription often requires a police report due to stringent federal regulations governing the dispensation of prescription drugs. Pharmacists may be hesitant to refill a prescription without this documentation to ensure medications are not misused or diverted.

Pharmacists are also mandated by federal laws to report any lost or stolen controlled substances. They must notify the DEA Field Division Office within one day of discovering the theft, using a specific form designed for this purpose. This requirement applies to pharmacy thefts but is also relevant to individual cases of lost medication.

Refilling Your Prescription

While not all locations demand a police report for a refill, your pharmacist will likely request to see one. Pharmacists use their professional judgment in cases of stolen medication and may provide an emergency refill or waive a restriction on early refilling, depending on the situation.

Once the refill is processed, the pharmacist will record the incident in their system and handle any related co-pays through the Prescription Benefit Manager (PBM). If the prescription was originally issued by your doctor, it’s advisable to contact them first, provide the police report, and have them coordinate directly with your pharmacist. This simplifies the process, avoiding redundant confirmations between your doctor and pharmacist.

Preventing Prescription Medication Theft

Having a thief steal your medication is not as rare as you might think. For example, in Arizona, there are 35.1 thefts per 100,000 people, which is the most in the United States. The next highest state is Missouri with 17.6 thefts per 100,000 people. The 382 thefts in pharmacies that happened in 2015 show how desperate some people are to steal medication, with pain relievers and other opiates being the most common items stolen.

Using a Locking Medication Bag When Traveling

When traveling, you protect important items like your passport and traveler’s checks; your medication deserves the same security. Travel medication bags are designed to be worn close to your body, making them difficult to steal. This ensures that even when far from home, you have access to essential medications.

For hospital stays, a lockable medication bag is also a wise precaution to prevent your medications from being misplaced or stolen during your stay.


In conclusion, taking proactive steps to secure your prescription medications, such as using lockable medication bags and promptly reporting thefts, can prevent significant inconvenience and ensure you maintain access to necessary health treatments. Remember, being prepared can prevent the distress of losing vital medications.

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