Juvenile Drug Possession

Learn about the laws and penalties that apply if a juvenile is charged with drug possession.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated May 24, 2022

Juvenile drug possession occurs whenever a person under the age of 18 knowingly controls a regulated drug or substance without a legal reason. Possessing illegal substances in this manner is a crime in all states and one that can lead to harsh penalties for juveniles.

Adults who are caught with controlled substances are charged with a crime and have their cases handled through the adult criminal court. Minors younger than 18, however, will typically go through the juvenile court system, which focuses primarily on rehabilitating the minor.

Juvenile courts use different terms than adult criminal courts. In the juvenile justice process, the prosecutor typically files a delinquency petition (rather than a criminal complaint or charges) alleging the minor violated the law. If the case ends up in court, the juvenile will go through an "adjudication" or "adjudicatory" process rather than a criminal trial. But regardless of what terms apply, the prosecutor must still prove the juvenile committed the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.

Drug Possession by a Minor

Any juvenile (a minor younger than 18) who knowingly and without legal justification possesses a controlled or illegal substance can be charged with juvenile drug possession. The offense level depends on the state law and the amount and type of drugs in the minor's possession. These charges might arise after, for example, a police officer pulls over a juvenile's vehicle and notices marijuana in the car, discovers drugs after searching the vehicle, or discovers drugs while interrogating the driver.

Knowing Possession of Drugs

To be convicted of drug possession, a juvenile must have knowingly possessed or controlled the prohibited substance. Simply saying "I didn't know it was there," however, won't be enough to avoid a conviction. A prosecutor can prove that you knew the drugs were in your possession or control based on the circumstances of the case. For example, if you're pulled over and the police find marijuana in your backpack, these circumstances highly suggest that you knew the drugs were there.

Actual or Constructive Possession or Control of the Drugs

To be convicted of possessing drugs, you don't need to be caught red handed. A prosecutor can prove possession by showing that the juvenile was actually holding the drugs, had them in a pocket or somewhere else on his or her body, or had "constructive possession" of the drugs. Constructive possession means the juvenile had control over the area where the drugs were discovered. For example, a drug possession charge can arise after a police officer pulls over a juvenile's car and discovers drugs in the glove compartment or trunk. Juveniles who have drugs located in their rooms, school lockers, or other areas over which they have control can also be charged with this offense.

Possession of Prescription Drugs by a Minor

While juveniles often face drug charges for possession of street drugs, like cocaine, heroin, or meth, it's also a crime to possess prescription drugs without a prescription. For example, it's considered illegal drug possession for an adult or minor to possess OxyContin pills without a valid prescription. Juveniles who have a valid prescription from a physician and take the drugs as prescribed are not committing an offense. However, if the juvenile's friend takes a couple of pills from the bottle, the friend is guilty of drug possession.

Possession of Marijuana by a Minor

In states that have legalized or decriminalized recreational use of marijuana, permitted uses are limited to adults age 21 and over. Minors cannot legally possess marijuana. But, while states were creating new laws on adult recreational use, many also updated penalties that apply to underage possession of small amounts of marijuana. These penalties vary widely by state.

An underage person who is 18, 19, or 20 will likely face low-level criminal charges or civil penalties. Minors under the age of 18 might face civil penalties (such as a civil citation), an infraction (similar to a traffic ticket), or delinquency penalties (described below). You'll need to consult your state law as these laws are constantly changing.

Penalties for Juvenile Drug Possession

Most states penalize drug possession penalties based on the type and amount of drug involved. Having a large amount of a highly addictive drug, like heroin, will carry stiffer penalties than possessing a small amount of marijuana. A juvenile's penalty will be based on the adult penalty. For instance, a juvenile might be found delinquent of an offense that would be a misdemeanor (or felony) if committed by an adult. And, like adults, a judge will review the juvenile's delinquency record and the circumstances of the offense. For instance, harsher penalties might apply for repeat drug offenses or offenses committed in school or park zones.

All that said, the juvenile justice process is still very different than the criminal justice process. Juvenile courts have a much wider range of options when dealing with a juvenile offender than they would if the offender had been an adult. Juvenile courts focus more on rehabilitating young people than punishing them. Because of this, a judge can order a wider range of options in its disposition (sentencing) order. Below are examples.

Drug Counseling or Other Counseling

In juvenile drug possession cases, judges commonly order drug counseling or substance abuse treatment. The judge, however, isn't limited to just placing the minor into counseling—the judge can order the parents or guardians to also attend counseling. For instance, a judge might order family counseling or behavioral or mental health counseling. The court may also order the parents or guardians to pay for the juvenile's counseling or treatment.

Fines or Restitution

A judge can also order the minor to pay fines and fees. If the minor stole the drugs or damaged someone's property to get the drugs or while on them, the judge might also order the child to pay restitution (compensation to the victims).

Community Service or Classes

A judge might also consider requiring the juvenile to attend drug awareness classes, speak to other kids about the dangers of drugs, or perform community service hours at a rehab or homeless center. If the minor quit or isn't attending school, the judge may order the kid go back to school and get a diploma. These types of orders demonstrate the type of rehabilitative or parental roles that juvenile courts can play.

Driver's License Suspension

Even if a vehicle wasn't involved in the offense, judges can often suspend or cancel a minor's driver's license until they reach 18.

Juvenile Probation

Juveniles may also be placed on probation for drug possession. When ordering probation, the judge will direct the juvenile to comply with specific terms, such as those described above (counseling, community service, school). The court may assign a juvenile probation officer or court officer and require the juvenile to regularly check in. Violating probation can mean going back to court to face additional sanctions.

Juvenile Detention

In rare cases, a court will order a juvenile into detention for drug possession. Detention can involve home confinement, placement with a foster family or guardian, placement in a juvenile or group home, or placement in a secure juvenile detention center. Drug possession cases do not typically result in detention unless the offense qualifies as a felony-level offense, the juvenile is a repeat offender, or other factors are present, such as the juvenile committed a violent crime related to the drug offense.

Juvenile Diversion Options for Drug Possession

A prosecutor's office might offer a juvenile a chance at diversion before heading into court. If offered, diversion typically comes with conditions the juvenile must abide by to have the charges dismissed. Conditions might include attending counseling, going to classes or school, completing community service, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, and obeying all laws. Successfully completing diversion can prevent the juvenile from ending up with a delinquency record.

Diversion programs and eligibility requirements are generally set by prosecutors' offices (and sometimes in law). While sometimes reserved for first-time offenders, more offices have opened up diversion options to repeat and felony-level offenders.

Speak to an Attorney

Being charged with drug possession as a juvenile is always significant. Speak with a criminal defense attorney in your area who has experience defending juvenile cases. A lawyer can help you understand how the juvenile delinquency process works, what constitutional rights juveniles have in these cases, and what having a juvenile record might mean for your future.

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