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California Health and Safety Code Section 11156 HSC: Prescribing Controlled Substances to an Addict

Because prescription drug addiction is such a big problem in the state of California, the California state legislature has taken steps to reduce the number of fraudulent prescriptions that have been filled. Various legislation has been drafted regarding the circumstances in which controlled substances may or may not be prescribed. People addicted to prescription drugs are often dependent on medical professionals to authorize their prescriptions. Because of this, prescribing a controlled substance to a drug addict is a criminal offense according to the California Health & Safety Code Section 11156 HSC statute.

To obtain a conviction, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the physician acted in the following circumstances:

  • The physician prescribed or administered a controlled substance to a patient
  • The patient was a drug addict
  • The physician was aware of the patient’s addiction

Note that the physician must have been informed by the patient of their addiction. Suspecting an addiction but prescribing anyway is not a basis for conviction.

Addicts are defined as individuals who experience cravings for controlled substances combined with at least one of the following behaviors:

  • Severely impaired control over their drug use
  • Compulsive substance use
  • Continued drug use despite physical or mental harm

If the person is seeking drugs because of pain that is unrelated to drug withdrawal, they do not fit the definition of a drug addict under this particular statute.


A doctor has a new patient appointment with a man. The man informs the doctor that he has a problem with chronic pain and asks for a Vicodin prescription. The man says his normal doctor believes that he is addicted to Vicodin and therefore will not prescribe additional medication. The new doctor prescribes Vicodin to the man even though he is addicted to opiates. In this case, the doctor might be charged with the illegal prescription of controlled substances to a drug addict.

A doctor has a new patient appointment with a woman who complains that she has severe back pain. The patient had a previous back injury, which the doctor can obviously observe during a medical examination. The patient says she has never received a painkiller prescription before. Based on the report of the patient’s history, the doctor prescribes a controlled painkiller. It turns out that the woman was severely addicted to painkillers and lying about her patient history. In this case, the doctor is¬†not¬†liable because he believed he was prescribing a controlled substance to a non-addict for a legitimate medical purpose.

Defenses for Unlawful Prescription to Addicts

Doctors and other medical practitioners who don’t know that the patient is an addict will not be found guilty of this particular offense. A physician will only be found guilty of this offense if they know that the patient is an addict and willfully prescribe the medication anyway.

Penalties for Unlawful Prescription to Addicts

This particular offense is a “wobbler” in the California state penal code, which means it could either be a misdemeanor or a felony. Prosecutors will decide on the charge severity based on the severity of the crime, the defendant’s prior criminal history, and whether or not there were multiple patients involved. If tried and convicted as a felony offense, the defendant can be imprisoned for a maximum of three years. If tried and convicted as a misdemeanor offense, the defendant can spend a maximum of one year in jail.

Convicted medical professionals will also be subject to censure and disciplinary action from the state licensing board, which usually ends in loss of medical license.

Similar Offenses

These offenses are similar in nature or related under California state penal codes:

  • Prescribing a Controlled Substance Without a Legitimate Purpose
  • Doctor Shopping / Prescription Fraud
  • Prescribing a Controlled Substance Without Treatment

If a doctor prescribes a controlled substance to a self-admitted addict, they may be subject to additional charges regarding the unlawful prescription of a controlled substance because they have not cited a legitimate medical purpose or offered additional treatment. The one exception to this is when doctors prescribe controlled substances to addicts who are undergoing detox in a licensed addiction treatment facility. Even in this case, however, the physician must strictly follow the treatment plan and the guidelines laid down for safe detoxification.

Patients who attempt to obtain a prescription for a controlled prescription under false pretenses may be subject to charges of prescription fraud and doctor shopping. Depending on the circumstances, they may also be subject to additional drug- and impersonation-related charges.

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