Controlled Substances Act (1970)

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Controlled Substances Act (1970)

Steven Harmon Wilson

Excerpt from the Controlled Substances Act

... Many of the drugs included ... have a useful and legitimate medical purpose and are necessary to maintain the health and general welfare of the American people ... [yet] illegal importation, manufacture, distribution, and possession and improper use of controlled substances have a substantial and detrimental effect on the health and general welfare of the American people ....

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) of 1970 (P.L. 91-513, 84 Stat. 1242) is the common name of Title II of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The Comprehensive Act sought to clarify the overall aims of federal control of dangerous drugs by updating or replacing many disparate laws. Also in pursuit of this goal, the CSA attempted to establish logical and consistent penalties for criminal violations, principally by eliminating what many concerned observers considered to be unduly harsh mandatory sentencing.


Congress has been regulating the importation and manufacture of drugs since the early 1900s. Criminal penalties for unauthorized possession of drugs began with the Narcotics Act of 1914 (the Harrison Act). In 1951 the Boggs Amendment instituted mandatory minimum sentences and eliminated parole or probation after the first offense. The Narcotic Control Act of 1956, known as the Daniel Act, increased the minimums.

The increase in drug use during the 1960s resulted in numerous long sentences and led the federal government to reexamine its punitive approach. In 1965 Congress enacted the Drug Abuse Control Amendments (DACA). DACA established a Bureau of Drug Abuse Control (BDAC) within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW, later Health and Human Services). The law created misdemeanor penalties (that is, generally speaking, a penalty not more than one year in prison and/or fine) for illegal manufacture and sale of certain depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, and other drugs that had not been covered under the Harrison Act and its amendments. The HEW thus gained responsibility for curbing the abuse of the newly prohibited "psychedelic" drug called LSD. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN, an agency of the Department of the Treasury) retained authority over many other drugs, including heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.

Many applauded the emergence of a multifaceted approach to the drug problem. But those who were committed to the criminal justice model of drug enforcement (generally, favoring the benefits to society of strict punishment over the benefits to the criminal of efforts at rehabilitation) were not satisfied. In February 1968 President Lyndon Johnson called the laws "a crazy quilt of inconsistent approaches and widely disparate criminal sanctions." He asked Congress to pass tougher laws and to create a powerful organization to enforce them. On April 8, 1968, Congress abolished the FBN and the BDAC and created a new Justice Department agency, the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). Even after the creation of the BNDD, however, there remained other federal agencies involved somewhat in drug regulation.

President Richard Nixon proposed that Congress reduce the confusion over policy and the duplication of effort by federal agencies by combining disparate regulations into a single statute. Congress complied by enacting the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. Nixon signed the bill on October 27, 1970, and it became effective on May 1, 1971. The legislation sought a balanced approach to the nation's drug problem. For example, Title I of the Comprehensive Act dealt with education, treatment, and rehabilitation.


Title II, of the CSA was the heart of the new statute. This established five "schedules" that ranked substances by balancing potential for abuse against medical usefulness. Drugs on Schedule One, including heroin, marijuana, and LSD, were deemed to have a high potential for abuse but no accepted medical use. Penalties were tied to the schedules, and violations were also ranked, with, for example, simple possession receiving a lesser punishment than possession with intent to distribute. Finally, Congress responded to criticism of mandatory minimum sentences for drug violations. Possession of a controlled substance for one's own use (that is, without an intent to distribute) was made a misdemeanor. Judges were given the discretion to place first-time, simple possession offenders on probation.


From time to time, amendments to the controlled substances statutes have been necessary. In the 1980s so-called "designer drugs," such as Ecstasy, became popular. These drugs produce effects and have a chemical structure similar to those of existing illegal drugs. In 1986 Congress prohibited these substances. More significant has been the revival of mandatory minimum sentencing. This began with the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA) of 1984, through which Congress abolished federal parole and compelled judges to observe sentencing guidelines.

Two years after enacting the SRA, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which set mandatory minimum sentences based on the weight of the drugs involved in a crime. This was passed in the midst of public outcry over the crack-cocaine epidemic. Because of the political climate, the bill passed the House by a 39216 vote. In 1988 Congress passed the Omnibus Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created an even more comprehensive set of quantity-based mandatory minimum sentences. The disproportionate impact these laws have had on defendants of racial minorities has provoked much analysis and debate.

See also: Anti-Drug Abuse Act; Narcotics Act; Sentencing Reform Act.


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