An Overview Of The DEA’s “Drugs Of Abuse” Report And Its Implications For Child Welfare

November 1, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

As part of their mandate to prevent substance abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) periodically puts out a resource guide titled “Drugs of Abuse.” The latest version from 2020 is meant to serve as a “comprehensive guide” to the drugs most commonly used in America today, what their effects are, and the legal consequences of being caught with these drugs.

In recent years, drug use has increasingly plagued the country’s youth population in particular. The DEA says that, in 2018, around 11.7% of Americans over the age of 12 (amounting to roughly 31.9 million) admitted to using an illicit drug in the month before they were surveyed. The young, they say, are particularly vulnerable. Data indicates that nearly half of all young people say they have used an illicit drug by the time they graduate high school. In addition, 8.5% of eighth grades, one-in-five high school sophomores, and nearly a quarter of all seniors say they have used an illicit drug in the month before they were surveyed.

In today’s piece, we take a look at the various drugs covered in the DEA report and their implications for youth.

The legality and punishments for various drugs are determined via the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), which was originally enacted in 1970. This is the legislation that divvies drugs into various schedules. The DEA, along with the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are the primary bodies that can make changes to the scheduling of drugs.

The factors considered when debating whether a drug needs to be regulated, decontrolled, or rescheduled include: 

  • Its actual or relative potential for abuse.
  • Scientific evidence of its pharmacological effect, if known.
  • The state of current scientific knowledge regarding the drug or other substance.
  • Its history and current pattern of abuse.
  • The scope, duration, and significance of abuse.
  • What, if any, risk there is to the public health.
  • Its psychic or physiological dependence liability.
  • Whether the substance is an immediate precursor of a substance already controlled.

There are five “schedules” that drugs are divided into under the CSA. The “non-sanctioned use” (i.e., not under legitimate medical guidelines) of any of these substances is legally considered to be drug abuse. Most of the drugs (excepting anabolic steroids) are used to chemically alter a person’s moods, thoughts, and feelings through the central nervous system. Addictive substances like alcohol and tobacco are not controlled by the CSA.

Schedule I is the most strictly regulated category. A label of this kind indicates that the substance has “a high potential for abuse” and is not currently accepted as a medical treatment in the U.S. Drugs in this category include heroin, LSD, and marijuana.

Schedule II drugs share many of the same characteristics as Schedule I drugs, but they do have a “currently accepted medical use in treatment.” The DEA acknowledges that these drugs may also lead to addictions/dependence. Examples of these drugs include narcotics like morphine, hydrocodone, and fentanyl, as well as PCP, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

In general, Schedule III drugs are considered to be less causative of addiction and are accepted as medical treatments, though they still have some potential for creating dependency. This category encompasses anabolic steroids, codeine products with aspirin or acetaminophen, and some barbiturates.

Schedule IV drugs are considered even less lethal than the previous category and include sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs like alprazolam (brands like Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin), and diazepam. Schedule V drugs are, then, the least dangerous drugs, and have a low potential for inspiring dependency. Cough medicines with codeine fall under this category.

The federal penalties for trafficking drugs vary by the amount a person is caught with and which schedule the drug belongs to. For instance, trafficking cocaine can earn anywhere between 5 years to life for a first offense, depending on the amount found. Also, fines for this can range from $5 million for an individual and $25 million for a non-individual to $10 million and $50 million, respectively — again, depending on the amount.

In addition, the CSA regulates five specific classes of drugs: narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, and anabolic steroids. Regardless of class, the DEA says, “all controlled substances have abuse potential or are immediate precursors to substances with abuse potential.” Drugs in any one class can also vary across schedules. For instance, narcotics/opioids can range from heroin (Schedule I) to fentanyl (Schedule II) to cough syrups with codeine in it (Schedule V).

The term “narcotics” traditionally referred to those substances that relieved pain, but today it tends to cover drugs that are derivatives or synthetic substitutes of opium. They are also referred to as opiates and opioids. This is one of the most abused classes of drugs today, as the nation continues to battle an ongoing epidemic of prescription pill abuse. Narcotics are almost ubiquitous now, and can be found at home or through friends by young people.

Stimulants, in general, “speed up the body’s systems” and can create exhilaration and enhance self-esteem, as well as keep people awake for longer, examples are cocaine and amphetamines. Students at universities, in particular, tend to abuse these drugs.

Depressants are the opposite — they help alleviate anxiety, seizures, and muscle spasms, and can induce sleep. They often induce euphoria and are mixed with other drugs to augment the high. Since these are prescribed for common mental illnesses, teens can easily access them from their family’s medicine cabinet, the internet, or even through legitimate doctors. Some, like GHB and Rohypnol (commonly called the “date-rape drug”) are used to “facilitate sexual assault,” the DEA says, and so can often be found in youth circles.

Hallucinogens “alter human perception and mood.” They are found often in nature, though they are also synthetically produced. As the name implies, they cause hallucinations and can affect one’s perception of time, space, and color. Examples are LSD (colloquially known as “acid”), magic mushrooms, PCP, ketamine, MDMA/ecstasy, and even marijuana.

Young people are more likely to be affected by Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD), a rare disorder that can be spurred on by stress and that includes “flashbacks” to certain aspects of the drug experience weeks or months after the hallucinogen was actually taken.  The DEA says the hallucinogens most commonly abused among junior and senior high school students are hallucinogenic mushrooms, LSD, and MDMA.

Anabolic steroids are synthetically produced chemical variants of testosterone (the naturally occurring male hormone) that are used to enhance muscle growth, athletic performance, and physical appearance. It’s rare to overdose on these drugs, but the effects build over time, especially if people start using them at a young age. These can be traded at gyms, athletic competitions, or even at schools and universities through teammates, coaches, and trainers.

The DEA also expresses concerns about “designer drugs” in its report. These drugs “differ slightly” in chemical structure from other controlled drugs, but retain the effects. Examples are “bath salts,” which mimic the effects of MDMA, meth, and cocaine; and K2/Spice, which mimic THC (the main ingredient in marijuana).

Of particular concern when it comes to young people abusing drugs is a category called “inhalants” that are not explicitly regulated by the CSA because their trade has genuine economic/commerce value. These are “invisible, volatile substances found in common household products that produce chemical vapors that are inhaled to induce psychoactive or mind altering effects.” Examples include everyday household substances like typewriter correction fluid, felt-tip markers, spray paints, glue, and cleaning fluids.

The DEA report says that these are often “often among the first drugs that young children use” and are among the few substances that tend to be abused more by younger children than older ones. About one in every five kids admitted to having used an inhalant by the time they reach the eighth grade. This is particularly worrying as repeated use can impair cognitive development, and has been linked to failing grades, chronic school absences, and general apathy. 

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15% of high school students reported having at some point used illicit or injection drugs like inhalants, cocaine, or heroin. This increases the risk of overdoses; HIV/AIDS contraction through improper needle use practices or risky sexual behaviors; mental health illnesses; stalled development; and even run-ins with the law.

You can read the DEA’s full report here.