Possession of a Controlled Substance in California

California classifies not only well-known drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine as controlled substances, but also the compounds used to manufacture them.

All states regulate and control the possession of controlled substances, though each differs in its exact definition of, and penalties for, possession. California classifies not only well-known drugs like methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine as controlled substances, but also the compounds used to manufacture them.

This article discusses possession of controlled substances for personal use only. The possession of drugs for sale or distribution carries different penalties. For more information on possession of drugs for sale or distribution, see Sale of Controlled Substances in California.

Some controlled substances, like codeine (a common painkiller), can be possessed legally so long as the holder has a valid prescription.

How California Classifies Controlled Substance Possession Crimes

Drug possession crimes in California are classified as infractions, misdemeanors, "wobblers," or felonies.

Infractions are the least serious and do not include jail time. Misdemeanors can result in up to a year in jail, and felonies carry state prison sentences of a year or more (although first offenders may be eligible for probation). A "wobbler" is an offense that may be charged or sentenced as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances and the decisions of the prosecutor and judge.

How California Classifies Controlled Substances

California law divides controlled substances into five “schedules.”

  • Schedule I drugs (such as opiates, heroin, and hallucinogens)
  • Schedule II drugs (such as raw opium, morphine, and oxycodone)
  • Schedule III drugs (such as pentobarbital and anabolic steroids)
  • Schedule IV drugs (such as diazepam and zolpidem)
  • Schedule V drugs (such as low doses of codeine combined with nonnarcotic active medicinal ingredients)

If you’ve been arrested for illegal drug possession for personal use, consult the statute specifying your offense. Then look at the California Code that lists precisely which drugs, and in what amounts, fit into each group. Those statutes are California Health and Safety Code Sections 11053 through 11058.

Penalties for Controlled Substance Possession Offenses

Possession of any amount of the following controlled substances is punishable by up to one year of incarceration in the county jail:

  • Schedule I opiates, opium derivatives, depressants, cocaine base, mescaline, peyote, or synthetic cannabis (including their isomers, esters, ethers, salts, and salts of isomers, esters, and ethers)
  • Schedule II narcotics or opiates
  • Schedule III hallucinogens
  • Schedule III, IV or V narcotics without a valid prescription

(Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11350 (2019).)

Under Proposition 47, these reduced penalties are available only to offenders who are not registered sex offenders, or who do not have convictions for specified serious or violent crimes—such as murder and certain sex and gun crimes. Defendants who do not qualify for misdemeanor treatment may be charged with wobblers or felonies, depending on the drug and the amount at issue.

Possession of Marijuana

Under Proposition 64, adults age 21 and older may legally possess specified amounts of marijuana and concentrated cannabis. (Marijuana possession, however, remains illegal under federal law.) Smoking marijuana is not permitted in or near certain areas, including public places and locations where smoking tobacco is prohibited.

California law also prohibits the following recreational uses of marijuana, with penalties based on the age of the offender, the amount of the drug involved, and where possession occurs.

  • Possession of not more than 28.5 grams of marijuana or not more than eight grams of concentrated cannabis by a person younger than 21 is an infraction.
    • If possession occurs at or near a school, the penalty for anyone age 18 and older is increased to a misdemeanor.
  • Possession of more than 28.5 grams of marijuana or more than eight grams of concentrated cannabis by a person younger than 18 is an infraction and by a person 18 or older is a misdemeanor.
  • Possession of any amount in an open container or package in a vehicle is an infraction.

(Cal. Health & Safety Code §§ 11357, 11362.3, 11362.4 (2019).)

For more information see Possession of Marijuana in California.

Talk to an Attorney

Convictions for illegal possession of a controlled substance incur both fines and incarceration. In certain cases, you may be eligible for pretrial diversion. Consult a lawyer who practices criminal defense to review the facts of your case, explain your options, and advise you of the possible consequences.

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