Illegal Heroin and United States Law
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies heroin as a Schedule I controlled substance, which means that it is an illegal drug with no recognized medical use and a high potential for abuse.1
Heroin possession and use are violations of federal law. Offenders are subject to arrest and prosecution, and those convicted may face strict penalties including prison time and significant fines.2
Heroin’s classification as an illegal drug is the result of decades of federal laws that evolved over time. Read on to learn more about these laws as well as the current laws on possession and trafficking of the drug.
City and State Ordinances Making Heroin Illegal
Many of these efforts began on the city and state levels. One of the first drug prohibition laws was passed by the City of San Francisco in 1875, which prohibited the smoking of opium in so-called opium dens. A similar law was passed the next year in Virginia City, Nevada. By 1914, there were a total of 27 states and cities with laws prohibiting opium smoking. However, the numbers of people smoking opium—which at this point was still legally imported—continued to rise.3
It wasn’t long before heroin and other drugs began to be regulated at the federal level.
Federal Laws Over Time
Before it was regulated, heroin was actually used as a medicine for coughs and respiratory problems.4 However, as time went on, its potential for abuse became apparent, and the federal government began to pass laws controlling its use, possession, and distribution.
A timeline of these laws is below.
1906: Pure Food and Drugs Act
The Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906 focused on the distribution and labeling of adulterated and misbranded food and drugs. This law aimed to curb the sale of potentially dangerous “patent medicines,” which often contained mislabeled or unlabeled ingredients. However, sales of heroin, opium, cocaine, and morphine continued.5
1909: Smoking Opium Exclusion Act
The Smoking Opium Exclusion Act was the first law to ban the non-medical use of any substance. The law forbade smoking opium but did not control other opium-based products.4
1914: The Harrison Narcotics Act
The Harrison Act restricted the manufacture and distribution of morphine, heroin, cocaine, and marijuana. Between 1915 and 1938, more than 5,000 physicians were prosecuted, fined, or jailed under the act.6
1919: Webb et al., v. United States
In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that prescribing drugs such as morphine to help an addicted person maintain his or her habit was illegal and would be subject to the Harrison Act of 1914.7
1922: Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act
The Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act, also commonly known as the Jones-Miller Act, imposed tighter restrictions on the importing and exporting of opium and other narcotics except for medical uses. It has since been repealed.8
1924: Heroin Act
The Heroin Act deemed the importation, manufacturing, or possession of heroin for any reason illegal.9
1932: Uniform State Narcotic Act
The purpose of the Uniform State Narcotic Act was to encourage the adoption of individual state laws that matched the federal Narcotic Drug Import and Export Act in prohibiting the trade of and non-medical use of heroin and other opioids.9
1951: Boggs Act
The Boggs Act included mandatory minimum prison sentences for first-time drug law violators. Before the Boggs Act, the average offender prosecuted for a narcotics law violation served 18 months in prison. After the Boggs Act, the average sentence for a narcotics violation rose to 43 months. In addition, the Boggs Act brought marijuana and narcotics under the same legislation for the first time.10
1956: Narcotics Control Act
This legislation increased the Boggs Act penalties and mandatory prison sentence minimums, with the belief that it would deter drug use and trafficking. For example, the act included sentences of 2 to 10 years for a first offense of heroin possession, 5 to 25 years for a first offense of selling or smuggling it, and 10 to 40 years for further offenses.10
1970: Controlled Substances Act
The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was part of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act. The CSA consolidated existing federal drug laws and expanded federal enforcement of controlled substances.10
The act placed all substances previously regulated under various federal laws into schedules based on their medical use, potential for abuse, dependence liability, and safety. Substances would now fall into one of the following 5 schedules:11
- Schedule I drugs, which include heroin and LSD, are drugs with no recognized medical use, as well as a high potential for abuse.
- Schedule II drugs, which include morphine and cocaine, are considered dangerous and addictive, but unlike Schedule I drugs, Schedule II drugs have legitimate medical use.
- Schedule III drugs have less potential for abuse than drugs in Schedules I and II and currently accepted medical use. Drugs in this category include anabolic steroids and barbiturates.
- Schedule IV drugs have an even lower potential for abuse and include sedative drugs such as Xanax and Valium.
- Schedule V drugs, such as certain types of cough syrup with codeine, have a low potential for abuse.
1973: Drug Enforcement Administration
President Richard Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA by executive order. The agency provided oversight of all federal enforcement of anti-drug laws.12
1973: Methadone Control Act
This legislation was an amendment to the Controlled Substances Act and provided for the establishment and oversight of methadone clinics to help treat heroin addiction.13
2000: Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction—in which heroin and other opioid users receive medications to help with withdrawal and other aspects of recovery—was the focus of the Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 (DATA 2000).
DATA 2000 allowed physicians who were qualified to prescribe medications such as buprenorphine in facilities other than methadone clinics. Physicians must meet certain conditions and obtain a waiver to provide these medications to help people with opioid addictions.14
Each state has individual laws on heroin offenses (such as possession, use, and distribution), and these laws can vary. However, the federal government has the ultimate authority and can prosecute at any time.
Federal drug possession laws for first offenses include fines up to $1,000 and/or a prison term up to 12 months. For a second conviction, a person can receive anywhere from 15 days to 2 years in prison and a minimum fine of $2,500. Further offenses include punishments of between 90 days and 3 years in prison and a minimum fine of $5,000.2
Possession laws vary by state. For example, in the state of Washington, a person can be fined up to $10,000 and sentenced to up to 5 years in prison for possession of any controlled substance.2 In Florida, possession of heroin is considered a third-degree felony and is punishable by up to 5 years in prison, though first-time offenders may be given alternate sentences, such as going through a drug court.15
While the influx of illicit drugs into the U.S. continues to be a problem, trafficking laws have at least made a dent in the heroin trade, resulting in seizures, convictions, and penalties against traffickers. The trafficking laws, sometimes referred to as possession with intent to distribute, often provide much stiffer penalties and jail terms for people convicted of these crimes than on those convicted of possessing illegal drugs for personal use.
At the federal level, a person convicted of possession with intent to distribute 100-999 grams of heroin could receive a sentence ranging from 5 to 40 years in prison. However, if death or serious injury to someone resulted from this crime, the mandatory minimum sentence rises to 20 years with a maximum of life in prison.2
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- Drug Enforcement Administration. Drug scheduling.
- Seattle Pacific University. Summary of Federal and state drug laws.
- Brecher, E.M. (1972). Consumers union report on licit and illicit drugs. Schaffer Library of Drug Policy.
- University of California, San Diego. Drugs: Mind, brain, culture.
- Quinn, T. M., & McLaughlin, G. T. (1972). The evolution of Federal drug control legislation. Catholic University Law Review, 22, 586.
- Stanford University. The United States war on drugs.
- Miller, W. R. (2012). The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: A-De(Vol. 1). Sage.
- U.S. Legal.com. (2016). Narcotic drug import and export act law and legal definition.
- The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment. (2016). A history of opioid opiate laws in the United States.
- Sullivan, L. E., Rosen, M. S., Schulz, D. M., & Haberfeld, M. R. (Eds.). (2004). Encyclopedia of law enforcement. Sage Publications.
- Drug Enforcement Administration. (2017). Drugs of Abuse.
- Sacco, L. (2014). Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends. Congressional Research Service.
- Agnich, L. E. (2011). Methadone control act.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). Buprenorphine.
- Find Law. (2018). Florida heroin laws.
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