Substance Use Disorders & the Law

The relationship between criminal justice systems and people who use substances is complex, currently and historically. This page provides information on how the United States criminal justice systems view people who use substances. Public health and policing data are beginning to impact the way that legal systems interact with people who use substances, so I encourage you to continue to seek current information, particularly if you are working directly with law enforcement or the criminal justice system. Counselors can play an important role in shaping public policy, as they have privilege based on their identities as healthcare professionals. As you learn about laws and substance use, consider what areas exist for you to advocate for change and how you might engage in such advocacy.

Recommended Readings & Resources

To get the most out of this unit, please review the following:

  1. DEA Drug Schedules
  2. Chasing Heroin
  3. Marijuana use Among Use in Colorado, 2015
  4. Colorado Marijuana Tax Revenue
  5. National Survey on Drug Use and Health
  6. This article on President Duterte

Learning Objectives

After completing this unit, students will be able to:

  1. List and critique President Trump's proposed solutions to the opioid crisis.
  2. Compare the five DEA drug schedules and give examples of substances that are included in each category.
  3. Critique how effective the war on drugs has been at preventing substance misuse.
  4. Contrast policing approaches involving people who misuse substances.
  5. Evaluate the health and financial effects that decriminalizing marijuana has had on Colorado.
  6. Draw a spectrum of law enforcement approaches to preventing substance use ranging from Duterte's approach to decriminalization. Articulate where President Trump appears on this spectrum based on his October 2017 speech.

President Trump's Speech on the Opioid Crisis

On October 24th, 2017, President Trump gave a speech on the national opioid epidemic, during which he provided compelling statistics regarding the crisis' scope. Trump also proposed solutions to the problem including:

  • Providing executive resources and prioritizing the opioid crisis
  • More oversight for physicians prescribing opioids
  • An FDA ban on on highly concentrated opioid
  • Researching less addictive painkillers
  • A massive advertising campaign to teach people that drugs are harmful
  • Building a wall with Mexico
    • Trump feels that the wall will stop smuggling
  • Using "innovative approaches", such as drug courts, to help people with addictions
  • Confronting the culture of drug abuse by ensuring that every American knows that purchasing/using drugs causes harm to the person ingesting the substance, as well as their family and loved ones
  • Teaching Americans that buying drugs funds criminal organizations

Watch Trump's Speech

Playback problems? This video is available on YouTube at

Trump's Speech Exploration Questions

  1. How effective do you think the President's plan for addressing the opioid crisis will be?
  2. What about Trump's plan might be effective, and what is less likely to be effective?
  3. What role do you think counselors can play in addressing the opioid crisis?
  4. When you progress to the conceptualizing and treatment units in this course, consider how people can take action on the individual, community, state, national, and international levels to reduce the number of people who are addicted to opioids.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Drug Schedules

The U.S. DEA has classified a range of chemicals, drugs, and substances based on accepted medical use and potential for dependence. There are five potential schedules ranging from no medical use with a high potential for abuse to medically used substances with a "lower" potential for abuse.

Review the definitions for each of the schedules. If you are interested in how a particular substance is scheduled, check out the Controlled Substances Alphabetical List. After you understand the five schedules, respond to the reflection questions below.

Drug Schedules Exploration Questions

  1. Think back to the substances you read about during the Introduction to Commonly Used Substances unit. How are those substances scheduled?
    1. Do you agree or disagree with the way that the DEA schedules substances? How come?

Why We Need to End the War on Drugs

Playback problems? This video is available on YouTube at

Why We Need to End the War on Drugs Exploration Questions

  1. Do you agree with the speaker's assertions regarding ending the war on drugs?
  2. What are the risks and benefits associated with ending the war on drugs?
  3. The speaker indicates that drugs should remain illegal for minors. Do you think it makes sense to treat minors who use substances as criminals?

Chasing Heroin

This PBS Frontline documentary explores the intersections between policing, substance use, and public policy. Watch the documentary here, and respond to the reflection questions below.

Chasing Heroin Exploration Questions

  1. If you could advocate for policy change regarding the way in which people who use substances interact with the legal system, what policy changes would you advocate for, and how would you implement your advocacy efforts?
    1. What do you think about the Portland Police's approach of checking in with heroin users, as opposed to incarcerating them?
    2. Where is the line between legal, medical use of prescription medications and misuse or dependence?
  2. As a professional counselor, how will you know when a client's use of prescription pain medication is problematic?
  3. How do you think high ranking members of drug cartels feel about decriminalizing substances such as marijuana, heroin, and cocaine?
    1. If the drug cartels had political lobbyists, do you think they would try to convenience politicians decriminalize Schedule I substances? What do you think would motivate them to lobby either for or against decriminalization?

Effects of Decriminalization

On November 6th, 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to vote to legalize recreational marijuana use. As of 2020, marijuana is legal in Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and tribal lands of three Native-American tribes. Many other states and municipalities have decriminalized marijuana for medicinal use. The effects of decriminalizing substances for recreation and medicinal use have been widely debated. Spend some time looking at the following data regarding substance use trends, before responding to the following reflection questions.

Decriminalization Exploration Questions

  1. What are your personal thoughts regarding decriminalizing marijuana and other substances?
  2. What data support your beliefs about criminalizing or decriminalizing substances?
  3. What type of counseling client might benefit from decriminalization?
  4. what type of counseling client might benefit from ongoing criminalization?
  5. What reactions did you have while reading through the above data?
  6. How do you think that decriminalizing substances impacts peoples reported use? Recall that the number of people who actually use a substance is not the same as the number of people who report using a substance.
  7. How important is it for governments to dedicate resources to arresting people who use substances, or are resources better used addressing underlying causes of substance misuse, like childhood trauma?

Death for People Who Use Substances?

Read this Al Jazeera report on the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte's, ambition to execute three million people who use substances.

Death for People Who Use Substances Exploration Questions

  1. The above article quotes President Duterte as saying that killing anyone who uses illegal substances would
    ...finish the [drug] problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.
    How would you respond to President Duterte's claim?