Oxycodone (marketed as OxyContin®) is one of the most well-known prescription opioids. The federal government places oxycodone in Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act—the federal law that categorizes and regulates drugs based on their medical value and potential for abuse and addiction. Penalties for unlawful possession and sale of oxycodone range from a misdemeanor to life in prison.
This article will discuss the federal penalties associated with unlawful distribution (sale or delivery) and possession of oxycodone. Most states' controlled substance schedules closely mirror the federal schedule, but state penalties may differ from federal law. For information on your state's drug laws, check out our articles on drug possession and sales.
Oxycodone is a semi-synthetic opioid legally available only by a valid prescription. Medical practitioners prescribe oxycodone primarily for pain relief. But years of overprescribing this highly addictive drug helped fuel what's become the opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2018, more than 232,000 Americans died from a prescription opioid overdose. Efforts to combat the opioid epidemic have been far-reaching, including education, prevention, treatment, and criminal prosecution.
The federal Controlled Substance Act ranks drugs from Schedule I to V—with Schedule I drugs being the most dangerous (such as heroin and LSD) and Schedule V drugs being the least dangerous (such as cough medications containing codeine). Schedule II drugs, like oxycodone, have a currently accepted medical use but a high potential for abuse and a significant risk of addiction. Based on this classification, federal law highly regulates oxycodone and provides harsh criminal penalties for unauthorized distribution (sale) or possession of the drug.
Drug crimes are often distinguished between sale and possession crimes. If a person possesses a small amount of drugs, the person would likely face simple possession charges—often a low-level felony or even a misdemeanor. But a person found in possession of a large amount of drugs could face stiff penalties for "possession with intent to distribute (or sell)." Federal and state laws generally consider possession with intent to sell on par with an actual sale. Let's break down these terms.
As it sounds, simple possession involves a person in possession of a small amount of drugs—an amount that signals personal use of the drug.
Possession with intent to distribute usually refers to a situation where a person is caught in possession of a drug under circumstances suggesting possession of the drug is for sale rather than personal use. Unless the prosecution has hard proof that a sale was about to happen (like in a sting operation), the prosecutor generally relies on circumstantial evidence to show the defendant's intent to sell.
Circumstantial evidence might include possession of large amounts of the drug, plus cash and drug packaging materials on hand. For example, a person busted with 3,000 OxyContin® tablets, a few cartons of plastic sandwich bags, and stacks of $100 bills in his car would have a hard time convincing a judge or jury that he possessed the drug for personal use.
Federal law uses the term "distribution" rather than sale. Distribution includes conduct that is a sale, attempted sale, transfer, or attempted transfer and can occur without an exchange of money. Distributors are not limited to what we typically think of as drug dealers. In criminal cases involving oxycodone, prosecutors have filed criminal charges against physicians, pharmacists, and others involved in illicit drug supply chains.
Federal law prohibits unauthorized distribution (sale), possession with intent to distribute, and simple possession of oxycodone and other Schedule II controlled substances (such as hydrocodone and morphine). (21 U.S.C. § 812 (2023).)
The federal statute sets a maximum penalty for each crime. A judge can impose a sentence up to this maximum (assuming no other sentencing enhancements apply). The sentence a defendant actually receives will depend on various factors outlined in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. These factors include the amount of drug involved, any aggravating or mitigating circumstances, and the defendant's criminal history.
A person who possesses oxycodone without a valid prescription commits a misdemeanor offense under federal law, punishable by up to one year's imprisonment and a minimum fine of $1,000. For a second or subsequent drug conviction, the penalty increases to a felony. A second conviction carries a sentence of 15 days and up to two years of incarceration. A person who has two or more prior drug convictions faces a minimum of 90 days and up to three years of incarceration. (21 U.S.C. § 844 (2023).)
As noted above, possession with intent to distribute and distribution are treated the same for penalty purposes. A conviction carries up to 20 years in prison and a $1,000,000 fine (or $5,000,000 for a company). If the person has a prior felony drug conviction, the maximum prison term increases to 30 years and up to life if serious bodily injury or death results from the use of the drug. (21 U.S.C. § 841 (2023).)
Federal law provides enhanced penalties when the illegal distribution of oxycodone involves young people.
Distribution near a school or other facility. A person convicted of distributing or possessing with intent to distribute oxycodone near a school, college, playground, youth center, swimming pool, or any other place young people might be present faces twice the maximum prison sentence, twice the maximum fine, and twice the term of supervised release. Repeat offenders face even harsher penalties. (21 U.S.C. § 860 (2023).)
Distribution to people younger than 21. An adult (age 18 or older) who delivers illegal oxycodone to a person younger than 21 faces a minimum sentence of one year's imprisonment and up to twice the maximum punishment for a first offense and three times for a second offense. (21 U.S.C. § 859 (2023).)
If you've been charged with a crime relating to oxycodone or any other drug, contact a lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced criminal defense lawyer who is familiar with federal or state law (depending on which law applies) will be able to advise you as to the strength of the case against you and the availability of any defenses.