Selling Prescription Drugs Illegally

Federal law makes it illegal for any person who does not have a license to write prescriptions to sell or give a prescription drug to another person

Federal law makes it illegal for any person who does not have a license to write prescriptions to sell or give a prescription drug to another person (21 U.S.C. § 841(a)). Licensed health care professionals, such as doctors or pharmacists, cannot knowingly sell or give prescription drugs to someone who does not have either a valid need or valid prescription for the drugs. “Selling” does not necessarily mean a cash transaction; instead, “selling” can include giving or exchanging a prescription drug, as well as an offer or agreement to sell or exchange (21 U.S.C. § 802(8)).

The illegal sale of prescription drugs has surged recently, especially involving pain medications like Vicodin and Percocet. The demand for pain medication for recreational rather than valid medical purposes has led to a corresponding increase in unlicensed, illegal internet sales of prescription drugs. Also, bogus “pain management clinics” have sprung up, run by licensed health care professionals who write and sometimes also fill unnecessary prescriptions.

What Is an “Illegal Sale?”

A prescription drug can be sold illegally in a number of ways. For instance, a person who has a valid prescription can be convicted of illegally selling drugs if he sells or gives his drugs to someone else. And a doctor or health care provider can be guilty of a crime by writing prescriptions that are either not medically necessary or for an amount of drugs greater than a person actually needs (which sometimes takes the form of writing multiple prescriptions for one person using many different and fake names). Similarly, a pharmacist who knowingly fills an invalid prescription can also be charged with this crime.

What Does the Prosecutor Have To Prove?

Defendants can be convicted of selling prescription drugs illegally if a prosecutor proves simply that a defendant knowingly sold or simply gave (or agreed to sell or give) a prescription drug to someone who lacked a valid prescription. With defendants who are health care professionals or pharmacists, a prosecutor would have to prove that the defendant intentionally wrote or filled bogus prescriptions.


When charged with illegally selling prescription drugs, defendants sometimes defend themselves by arguing that they had no intent to sell the drugs, but instead possessed the drugs simply for personal use. In the case of defendants who are health care professionals or pharmacists, they may argue that they had medically valid reasons for writing prescriptions, or no reason to suspect that they were filling an invalid prescription.


The penalties for the illegal sale of prescription drugs vary, depending on where the case was prosecuted (federal charges carry the same penalties, no matter where in the country the prosecution occurs, but each state has its own sentencing provisions). A conviction for an illegal sale of prescription drugs carries rather heavy penalties. Selling illegally is treated much more seriously than simply possessing a drug illegally. As a result, while a possession conviction could result in a fine or a misdemeanor record, an illegal sale conviction generally results in a felony record along with a prison term. Additionally, health care providers and pharmacists convicted of illegally selling prescription drugs face not only criminal penalties but also the loss of their licenses (and livelihoods).

Additional Information

For more information regarding the sale of drugs, check out the links below.

Consult With A Lawyer

Being charged with illegally selling prescription drugs is a serious matter. It is quite advisable to consult with an attorney having knowledge of the illegal sales laws and penalties applicable in your case. A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney will have a sense of how to convince either a prosecutor or a jury that a defendant had no intention to sell a prescription drug, but instead possessed the drug simply for personal use, or even possessed it unintentionally. That could result in lesser punishment. When it comes to licensed healthcare professionals, an experienced attorney may be able to negotiate a plea that either allows defendants to keep their licenses, or, alternatively, lets them give up their licenses to avoid a prison term.

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