Guide to Drug Laws in the United States

Laws related to drugs are made at the federal, state, and local level. Be sure to check your state and local laws. For California, see our guide here.

Which drugs are illegal in the U.S.?

Most drugs are illegal in the U.S. under the federal Controlled Substances Act, except for medications prescribed to you by a medical doctor.1Controlled Substances Act of 1970

This means that the federal government can prosecute you for possessing (including for personal use), selling or distributing any amount of an illegal drug, including but not limited to heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, psychedelics or hallucinogens like LSD, and more. That said, the federal government has recently de-prioritized prosecution for possession of small amounts of drugs.

Despite the federal prohibition on most drugs, many states and cities have “legalized” or “decriminalized” certain drugs. Even marijuana is technically illegal under federal law, although several states have “legalized” it, creating a conflict in the law that has yet to be resolved. See our Guide to Marijuana Laws in the U.S.

What about CBD?

See our Guide to CBD Law.

Are psychedelics like psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or ayahuasca legal?

Oregon has become the first jurisdiction to legalize the use of psilocybin for those over 21, and only in licensed guided psilocybin service centers. This law was created by the voters who passed Ballot Measure 109 (now codified as ORS 475A), in November 2020.

The Oregon Health Authority expects psilocybin service centers to open their doors to clients and for licensed facilitators to begin offering psilocybin services in 2023.

Other states and cities have decriminalized the use of certain drugs, particularly psychedelics. See below.

What is “decriminalization” of drugs?

Many states and cities also have additional laws prohibiting drugs, meaning that local law enforcement can prosecute you for possessing or selling drugs. But some cities and states have “decriminalized” such activities, particularly for psychedelic drugs. This means local law enforcement cannot prosecute you for minor drug crimes (although it may still be considered an “infraction.”) However, this does NOT stop the federal government from enforcing federal law.

Denver was the first city to decriminalize “magic mushrooms” aka psilocybin mushrooms. The city will no longer penalize adults 21 or older for the use and possession of small amounts of the drug. Oakland, San Francisco, and Santa Cruz also decriminalize all plant-based “entheogenic” hallucinogen drugs, which includes psilocybin, ayahuasca, DMT, and others. Washington, D.C. is also considering similar decriminalization.

As mentioned above, the state and federal governments can still enforce these laws.

Is it illegal to drive while high on drugs?

While it is generally illegal in itself to simply do drugs, it is an additional crime to operate a vehicle while high or intoxicated on a drug. Depending on the state, this may be considered a DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated).

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Photo credit: Photo by Marco Allegretti on Unsplash


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