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California Health and Safety Code Section 11153 HSC: Prescribing A Controlled Substance Without A Legitimate Purpose

Prescription drugs and controlled substances may serve an important medicinal purpose for many patients. However, some people are addicted to certain prescription drugs and abuse controlled substances. Licensed physicians are authorized to write prescriptions for controlled substances, but sometimes these physicians will write these prescriptions unlawfully. The California state legislature has made it illegal to prescribe any controlled substance without a documented medical purpose. This offense is a violation of the California Health & Safety Code Section 11153 HSC statute and has the potential for serious penalties.

To convict a physician or other medical professional of a Section 11153 violation, the prosecution must prove the following criteria beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • The medical professional has written a prescription which was not issued during the usual treatment course or issued in connection with any legitimate research
  • Alternatively, the medical professional writes a prescription for a known addict or abuser of controlled substances, and does not issue the prescription in connection with a professional treatment course meant to wean the patient off of narcotics use

Controlled substances meet a strict definition based on federal and state drug classification guidelines. Included on the list are opiates, depressants, and stimulants.

Some licensed narcotics treatment programs involve the administration of prescription substances in increasingly lower doses to help an addict wean themselves off the substance. This is a safer treatment method than forcing the addict to quit the substance “cold turkey.” Provided the treatment program is officially licensed, physicians may prescribe for this purpose without being criminally liable.


A doctor sees many different patients over the course of his practice. A man visits him and complains of nausea along with other symptoms. The man tells the doctor that he has a painkiller addiction and is out of pills. When the doctor suggests treatment, the man refuses. However, he is physically ill due to the effects of withdrawal. He asks the doctor for a Vicodin prescription. Because the patient is clearly distressed, the doctor agrees, even though the patient has admitted he is an addict. In this case, the doctor could face charges for prescribing Vicodin unlawfully. Supplying addicts with controlled substances is prohibited by the California Health & Safety Code Section 11153 HSC statute. Doctors are specifically prohibited from providing a patient drugs for their addiction unless the prescription is part of a licensed treatment program.

A woman visits a physician complaining that she experiences severe and chronic back pain. Upon examination, the doctor does not find any signs that the patient is lying. He writes a painkiller prescription. In actuality, the woman is a painkiller addict who faked her pain because she needed pills. In this case, the doctor is not criminally liable for prescribing the controlled substance because a thorough examination was performed, and the doctor believed he was writing a medically based prescription.

Defenses for Unlawful Prescription of Controlled Substances

As previously stated, when a physician acts in good faith to write a controlled substance prescription, they do not have criminal liability for this particular offense. This defense can even apply in instances when the doctor might be guilty of negligence or when the doctor has a different practice from that which has been established by other medical professionals.

In cases where the physician acted negligently, he may be subject to other charges based on his negligence. However, he cannot be convicted of unlawful prescribing if he truly believed he had a medically sound purpose for the prescription. This statute only applies to physicians who knowingly prescribe controlled substances to addicts or people who do not need them.

Penalties for Unlawful Prescription of Controlled Substances

According to California state law, the unlawful prescription of controlled substances without a medical purpose is considered a “wobbler” offense. This means it can either be tried as a misdemeanor or felony. If the defendant is convicted of a misdemeanor, they can face up to one year in jail along to up to twenty thousand dollars in court fines. If the defendant is convicted of a felony, the defendant might face a sentence of up to three years in federal prison.

Additionally, any medical professional convicted of unlawful prescribing will be subject to disciplinary action by the medical licensing board. This will usually result in the loss of their medical license and the revocation of the ability to write any prescriptions.

Similar Offenses

There are other offenses that occur under similar or simultaneous circumstances. Sometimes medical professionals will be convicted of these on top of or in lieu of their Section 11153 conviction. Related offenses are:

  • Doctor Shopping or Prescription Fraud
  • Unlawful Possession of a Controlled Substance

Patients of an unlawfully prescribing doctor may be subject to these.

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