In previous decades, drug charges often arose from illegal street drugs like heroin, crack cocaine, and, prior to New York’s decriminalization law for small amounts, marijuana. Today, the abuse of prescription medications, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, has become the more prevalent issue, with an increasing number of overdose deaths each year. Despite their legality, prescription medications can lead to very serious criminal charges under certain circumstances. New York prescription drug possession lawyer Seth Koslow explains some of the laws — and penalties — surrounding prescription drug possession and distribution in New York City.
Is it Legal to Buy, Sell, or Possess Medication without a Prescription?
Everyone knows that drugs like methamphetamine and LSD are illegal. However, confusion can arise over the legal status of prescription drugs, which is more nuanced.
It is common for doctors and dentists to prescribe anti-anxiety or painkiller medications like Valium, Xanax, Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin. If you’ve ever undergone surgery or suffered a serious injury, you’ve probably been prescribed one of these medications yourself. So how can a drug lead to criminal prosecution if you can walk into a pharmacy and fill a prescription legally?
The key word here is “prescription.” From a legal standpoint, a prescription is all that separates OxyContin from, for example, cocaine. These substances both share a DEA classification as Schedule II drugs, but one is legal to possess — if, that is, the patient has an appropriate prescription. In the absence of such a prescription, OxyContin and cocaine are in the same criminal category, for all intents and purposes.
New York’s criminal code, called the NY Penal Law, is divided into articles that deal with various crimes. With a few exceptions, most of New York City’s prescription drug-related offenses are contained under Article 178 of the NY Penal Law. Different statutes under Article 178 create varying degrees of a prescription drug crime known as “criminal diversion of prescription medications and prescriptions.” This offense can be charged in the fourth, third, second, or first degree, with the latter being the most serious.
The phrase “criminal diversion” has a few different meanings under NY Penal Law § 178.00(3). It can mean doing any of the following in exchange for money or other forms of compensation (“anything of pecuniary value”):
- Transferring or delivering prescription drugs, despite knowing or having reason to know that the recipient doesn’t have a legitimate medical need for them.
- Transferring or delivering an actual prescription.
- Receiving prescription drugs, despite knowing the seller has no legal or medical authority to make the sale or transfer.
- Receiving an actual prescription.
There is also a fifth statute under Article 178, NY Penal Law 178.26, that creates an offense called “fraud and deceit related to controlled substances.” This statute makes it a crime to use means of fraud or deceit — for example, forging a prescription, using a false name or address, or assuming the identity of a pharmacist — in order to get a controlled substance (such as OxyContin) or a prescription for a controlled substance (such as a prescription for OxyContin). If you are not an actual doctor or patient, possessing a prescription drug — or even a prescription for a drug — can lead to criminal prosecution.
What Are the Penalties for Possession of Prescription Drugs in New York?
The unlawful sale or possession of prescriptions or prescription drugs, or the use of fraud to obtain prescriptions or prescription drugs, can lead to very serious criminal penalties if the defendant is convicted.
Criminal diversion of prescription medications is always charged as a felony, unless it is a crime of the fourth degree, in which case the offense is a Class A misdemeanor. Though preferable to a felony conviction in terms of the consequences, a conviction of a Class A misdemeanor is still a serious matter, capable of leading to up to a year in jail, as well as a fine of up to $1,000. Fraud and deceit related to controlled substances is also a Class A misdemeanor.
If the offense involves a transaction of a value exceeding $1,000, the offense becomes a felony. It is a Class E felony when charged in the third degree, a Class D felony when charged in the second degree, and a Class C felony when charged in the first degree. Penalties for these felonies include a fine of up to $5,000 or double the defendant’s financial gain from the offense, as well as the following prison sentences:
- Class E Felony — Up to 4 years in prison
- Class D Felony — Up to 7 years in prison
- Class C Felony — Up to 15 years in prison
Manhattan Prescription Drug Possession Defense Attorney
If you or one of your family members was charged with the illegal possession of prescription medication, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Xanax, Valium, Percocet, Ambien, Dilaudid, Fentanyl, or Demerol, or related charges such as forgery, aggressive legal representation is essential. Prescription drug charges can lead to years in prison, thousand of dollars in fines, and a burdensome criminal record that will follow you for the rest of your life.
When the consequences are this severe, you need a tough, experienced, and knowledgeable defense lawyer to fight the allegations and protect your Constitutional rights. For a free legal consultation, call New York drug crime attorney Seth Koslow at (347) 561-0025.