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How are Juveniles Charged for Sedative Drug Crimes?

— February 25, 2022

Parents and loved ones need to know the importance of educating their children about the dangers of drug addiction and the fact that drug crimes are anything but harmless.

If you were to do a web search for “drug charges,” the top results that come up would probably be a long list of attorneys in your area. This is no accident. Illicit drug use carries a high price tag of fines and lengthy prison sentences in many cases. But what about drugs like sedatives? Are they considered less serious in the eyes of the court? And what if these drug charges involve juveniles? Here’s what to know about the complicated way sedative drug charges are handled for juveniles. 

The Sleeping Giant of Drug Abuse

By 12th grade, nearly 20 percent of teenagers use prescription medication without a doctor’s prescription. While prescription medication is an umbrella term that includes benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, and opioids, such as hydrocodone, it also includes the “sleeper” drugs known as the sedative class Z-drugs. These drugs, which are prescribed to treat insomnia, are generally considered to be less dangerous than benzos or opioids. However, they still carry a potential for abuse and addiction, especially when used illegally. Among sedative drugs, the most popular is probably zolpidem tartrate, known by its brand-name Ambien, or the barbiturate sedative phenobarbital, known as the brand-name Nembutal. 

So how do these sedative drugs get into juveniles’ hands? In some cases, it can happen as early as middle school, when 12-year-olds steal from a family member’s medicine supply and sell Ambien at the lunch table in their school’s cafeteria. While this specific story took place almost eight years ago, the scenario is anything but dated. The problem of sedative drug accessibility only continues to grow each year. Two main reasons the drug seems easier than ever to get today are the increase of alleged online drug stores offering sedatives for purchase or even cases where medical doctors are caught prescribing large amounts of these drugs illegally. 

Because of the widespread availability of sedatives, juveniles might lack an understanding of their dangers. Even parents can become less proactive in keeping medication out of reach. Sedatives are officially classified as Schedule IV controlled substances— a lower level for abuse compared to benzos or opioids. However,  juveniles should know that the risk of using them not only includes drug charges related to them but the significant health issues that can occur when using these drugs. Sedatives carry a risk of memory loss, and this risk is higher among younger individuals. 

A Complicated Court System

The proceedings of juvenile sedative drug crimes can be difficult to predict. It depends on both where you live and when you live there. New legislation means the particulars of drug crimes can change from year to year. This makes an exhaustive evaluation of juvenile drug courts impossible, but there are still some examples that can be used to help.

While there are some ways to understand the maximum fines and imprisonment for controlled substances in general, the particulars of drug offenses vary by state. Unless you live in Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts, or New Mexico, the judicial system across the United States allows for juveniles to be tried as adults for drug crimes. Some argue that this is a relic of the tough-on-crime era that needs to be fixed. In the 1990s, legislation made it easier for juveniles to be tried in adult courts for crimes like homicide or rape. 

Legislation across the country in the past few years shows just how polarized this issue is. California became the first state to raise the transfer eligibility of juveniles (the ability to charge them as adults) to age 16, regardless of the crime. However, California laws allow for Ambien or other sedative intoxication to be charged as a DUI even if the person doesn’t mix the drug with alcohol. Compare this to the other end of the spectrum where Iowa and Wisconsin allow for a transfer age of 10. More than 20 states have not specified any age restrictions.

This means that the illegal possession and distribution of Ambien in our earlier example of the 12-year-olds might be charged in a juvenile court or adult criminal court, and the difference comes down to what state you live in. In Florida, for example, a minor facing a felony drug charge will likely be sentenced to a monetary fine as well as time served in a juvenile facility. Felonies can apparently cause significant problems on someone’s record long after adulthood. In some cases, these offenses are never erased from public records. 

Thinking It Through

Students; image by, via Pexels, CC0.
Image by, via Pexels, CC0.

Part of the process of drug charges can often include court-ordered evaluation or treatment for individuals dealing with drug addiction. It is important to know your state’s unique drug laws, but it is always better to seek treatment without a criminal record attached to it. 

Parents and loved ones need to know the importance of educating their children about the dangers of drug addiction and the fact that drug crimes are anything but harmless. There is no such thing as a “free pass” under age 18, even in the most lenient U.S. states. The question is not if a juvenile will be charged when committing a drug crime, but how severe the charge is, and this grows exponentially if they are charged as an adult. But ultimately, drug crimes often point to a deeper issue: addiction. It is important to care for those who are not adults by helping them get the help they need long before courts are involved. 


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