The District of Columbia regulates controlled substances, also called controlled dangerous substances or CDS. These regulations mean that penalties exist for individuals found to carry or otherwise possess these controlled substances.

A controlled substance is not just a particular drug. It includes the compounds that make up that drug. Not all of these compounds fall under legal regulations, but many of them do. Possession of these compounds can come with penalties just as possession of the fully manufactured drug can.

Possible Penalties for Possession

Possession of a controlled substance in the District of Columbia falls under two classes. These are misdemeanor and felony. A misdemeanor offence comes with lighter penalties than felony offenses.

Each class of crime requires not just possession, but also a knowing and intentional possession. It is possible for someone to be in possession of a controlled dangerous substance without awareness of the substance’s presence, or of the substance’s classification as restricted. This can happen a lot with prescription drugs.

Misdemeanor possession

Generally, misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance can include either or both, up to 180 days of imprisonment or a fine up to $1,000.

In most cases, the type of drug in possession does not matter. Possession covers most drugs and is considered a misdemeanor overall. Carrying one of the most commonly possessed controlled substances, marijuana, is a misdemeanor. A major caveat to that is in the case of phencyclidine (PCP) in a liquid form.

Felony possession

Possession of phencyclidine (PCP) in liquid form is an automatic felony. The penalty for a possession charge in this case is up to three years in jail, up to a $3,000 fine or a combination of both.

First Time and Repeat Offenses

For both misdemeanor and felony offenses, the penalties can change depending on whether it is a first offense or a repeat offense.

First Time Offenders

In the District of Columbia, a first time offender has an option normally called deferred judgment or deferred prosecution. This option allows the first time offender to accept up to a year of probation without a formal charge. At the end of the probationary period, the defendant can have the charges dropped or even have their record expunged.

However, if the defendant violated that probation, then they can still face charges and penalties.

Repeat Offenders

For repeat offenders, the penalties can double. Rather than up to $1,000 and/or six months, the defendant faces up to a year and/or up to a $2,000 fine for misdemeanor simple possession.

Possession Related Offenses

Any drug paraphernalia with even a hint of a controlled substance on or in it comes with the same penalties as a simple possession misdemeanor. Any attempt to do anything regarding the possession of a controlled substance comes along with penalties. This includes things like seeking to possess or giving the possession over to another.

Drug Possession

To be charged with the crime of drug possession in Washington D.C., three elements are necessary:

  1. knowing or intentional
  2. possession of
  3. a controlled substance

The charge is subject to proof of a valid prescription written prior to possession of the drug/substance.

Elements of the Offense


The first step in being charged and convicted with drug possession is proof that the defendant “possessed” the substance. This can be actual possession or “constructive” possession. Actual possession is if the defendant had the drugs in his/her hands or clothing at the time of being stopped by a police officer. Constructive possession means that while the substance may not actually be on the individual’s person, the defendant both knew about the drugs and had the ability to exercise control over the drugs (e.g., the drug/substance was kept in a safe deposit box for which the defendant held the key).


The prosecution must prove “knowing” or “intentional” possession by the defendant which leads to criminal intent (mensrea). This means that the defendant knew that the substance was illegal, but intended to keep it. “Negligent” possession means that the individual should have been aware that the substance was illegal. “Reckless” possession means that the individual disregarded indications that the substance was illegal.

Controlled substance

The final piece that the prosecution must prove is that the substance recovered from the individual is a “controlled substance.” A controlled substance is defined as being on the list of substances that are only legally possessed with a valid prescription under the D.C. Controlled Substances Act.

The Controlled Substances Act

The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) groups substances that an individual is not allowed to possess without a valid prescription into five categories (“schedules”) determined by the drug/substance’s hazardous potential. These five schedules should not be confused with the five “classes” of drugs determined by the drug’s main properties (i.e., narcotics, depressants, stimulants, hallucinogens, anabolic steroids).

Schedule I

Drugs or other substances for which legislature has determined there is a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use in treatment (e.g., LSD, heroin, marijuana and certain opiates).

Schedule II

Drugs/substances for which there is a high potential for abuse and severely restricted uses in medical treatment. These drugs may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence (e.g., oxycodone, codeine, amphetamines, PCP, and some opiates).

Schedule III

Drugs/substances which have a lower potential for abuse, have currently accepted medical and may lead to moderate/low physical dependence, but high psychological dependence risk (e.g., Anabolic steroids, codeine, hydrocodone and some barbiturates).

Schedule IV

Drugs/substances which have a relatively low abuse potential, currently accepted medical use and limited dependence risk (e.g. Darvon®, Valium® and Xanax®).

Schedule V

Substances with a low potential for abuse, many uses in medical treatment and low potential for physical or psychological dependence (e.g., cough medicines with codeine).


Possession of a controlled substance in D.C. is a misdemeanor. For a first time offender, a conviction carries a maximum penalty of 180 days incarceration and a $1,000 fine. A second or subsequent conviction would have penalty of double that of a first-time offender (e.g., 360 days incarceration).

As an alternate punishment for a first-time offender, a conviction can indicate probation for up to a year and defer an adjudication of guilt. With successful completion of probation period, the court can dismiss the case, and have the arrest completely expunged from his/her record. If the person seems to be complying with the terms of probation, the court has the right to dismiss the case early, before completion of the probationary period. However, if the terms of probation are violated, the court can enter an immediate adjudication of guilt and sentence the person accordingly. D.C. Code 48-904.01.

How we can help you

Being convicted of possession of a controlled substance is a serious offense that can carry fines or even jail time. If you are facing a possession charge in Washington DC, it is important to make sure you protect your rights in court.

Have You Been Arrested With Drug possession And Intent To Distribute In Virgina, Maryland or Washington D.C.?

If you'be been arrested for drug possession with intent to distribute you need to speak with an experienced drug defense attorney as soon as possible. Please contact us online or call our Vienna, Virginia office directly at 703.991.7978 or our Rockville, Maryland office at 301.637.5392 to sechdule your case consultation. 

Yuvora Nong
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