California Health & Safety Code 11156 HS makes it a crime to prescribe, dispense or administer controlled substances to a drug addict.1 Anyone can be charged under this section — even healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses and pharmacists who help provide prescription medications to addicts.
HS 11156 is commonly charged in connection with:
- Health & Safety Code 11153 prescription fraud or HS 11373 doctor shopping,
- Health & Safety Code 11162.5 possessing fake prescription blanks, or
- Health & Safety Code 11368 forgery of prescriptions.
Recent coverage of the issue by publications like the Los Angeles Times has begun to draw more attention to these laws. In late 2015 the Times reported that a doctor who had prescribed painkillers to patients who later died of overdoses was convicted of California murder.2
The legal definition of providing controlled substances to an addict
Under this section, you provide controlled substances to an addict when:
- you prescribe, administer or dispense,
- a controlled substance,
- to an addict, or someone who represents him- or herself as an addict.3
You don’t need to be a doctor, nurse-practitioner or other health care worker qualified to write prescriptions to violate California’s law against prescribing controlled substances to an addict.
Note that under Health & Safety Code 11154(a), it is also a crime to prescribe a controlled substance to a patient without providing treatment to that patient.
You can also violate this law if you simply administer or dispense the drug.4 As a result pharmacists, people who work in nursing homes and emergency rooms, and even family members or friends of addicts can be charged under Health & Safety Code 11156.
Who is an addict under California HS 11156?
Health and Safety Code 11156 defines an “addict” as someone whose actions are characterized by craving for a controlled substance in combination with one or more of the following:
- Impaired control over drug use;
- Compulsive use; or
- Continued use despite harm.5
Example: Trisha is a pharmacist in a small town. An old high school classmate of hers named Rich comes into the pharmacy to fill a prescription for hydrocodone (Vicodin).
Trisha has recently had a conversation with Rich’s wife Sarah. Sarah told Trisha that Rich has been taking Vicodin compulsively since it was prescribed to him for a back injury a year ago. Sarah also told Trisha that she has decided to divorce Rich because of his Vicodin use.
Based on her conversation with Sarah, Trisha knows that Rich meets the definition of an addict under HS 11156. If she dispenses the Vicodin to him anyway, she will be guilty of dispensing controlled substances to an addict under that law.
However, a person is not considered an addict under Health & Safety Code 11156 HS if s/he engages in drug-seeking behavior primarily due to inadequate control of pain.6
Example: After a car accident that left her with soft tissue damage, Maria suffers from intermittent severe pain in her legs. She has obtained prescriptions for several different strong painkillers from several different doctors, but none of them have helped her pain much.
So she goes to see Dr. Reddy, who was recommended to her by a friend. She tells him that she has prescriptions for a number of painkillers but that none have helped her. He writes her a prescription for a strong intravenous painkiller that she hasn’t tried yet.
Maria is displaying the kind of drug-seeking/doctor-shopping behavior that is often displayed by addicts. But Dr. Reddy is probably not guilty of prescribing controlled substances to an addict because Maria’s behavior seems to be the result of inadequate control of her pain.
Consequences of prescribing controlled substances to an addict
Prescribing, administering or dispensing controlled substances to an addict is what is known as a “wobbler” crime. This means that the prosecutor may choose to charge it as either a misdemeanor or a felony.7
Potential misdemeanor penalties under HS 11156 can include:
- Misdemeanor (summary) probation;
- Up to one (1) year in county jail; and/or
- A fine of up to twenty thousand dollars ($20,000).8
As a felony, prescribing controlled substances to an addict carries a longer jail sentence and may include:
- Felony (formal) probation;
- Sixteen (16) months, two (2) years or three (3) years served in county jail under California’s realignment program; and/or
- A fine of up to twenty thousand dollars ($20,000).9
Legal defenses to HS 11156 charges
According to Pasadena criminal defense attorney Karthik Krishnan10:
“Even though Health & Safety Code 11156 tries to define what an ‘addict’ is, most medical professionals know that it’s impossible to come up with a perfect definition—let alone to apply one. In the end, whether someone is an addict or not is a judgment call. If a doctor, nurse or pharmacist makes a good-faith mistake about someone’s motives in seeking prescription drugs, she or he should not be guilty of this crime”
Call us for help…
For questions about the crime of Health & Safety Code 11156 prescribing or dispensing controlled substances to an addict, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our California criminal defense attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group.
We have local criminal law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
For more information on Nevada “drug shopping” and “prescription fraud” laws, please see our page on Nevada “drug shopping” and “prescription fraud” laws.
1 Health & Safety Code 11156 HS – Prescribing, administering or dispensing controlled substances to addict prohibited; exceptions; “addict” defined. (“(a) Except as provided in Section 2241 of the Business and Professions Code, no person shall prescribe for, or administer, or dispense a controlled substance to, an addict, or to any person representing himself or herself as such, except as permitted by this division. (b)(1) For purposes of this section, “addict” means a person whose actions are characterized by craving in combination with one or more of the following: (A) Impaired control over drug use. (B) Compulsive use. (C) Continued use despite harm. (2) Notwithstanding paragraph (1), a person whose drug-seeking behavior is primarily due to the inadequate control of pain is not an addict within the meaning of this section.”)
2 California doctor convicted of murder in overdose deaths of patients, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 30, 2015.
3 Health & Safety Code 11156 HS – Prescribing, administering or dispensing controlled substances to addict prohibited; exceptions; “addict” defined, endnote 1 above.
7 Health & Safety Code 11371 HS – Prescription violations; inducing minor to violate provisions; punishment. (“Any person who shall knowingly violate any of the provisions of Section 11153, 11154, 11155, or 11156 [providing prescription drugs to an addict] with respect to (1) a controlled substance specified in subdivision (b), (c), or (d) of Section 11055, or (2) a controlled substance specified in paragraph (1) of subdivision (b) of Section 11056, or (3) a controlled substance which is a narcotic drug classified in Schedule III, IV, or V, or who in any voluntary manner solicits, induces, encourages or intimidates any minor with the intent that such minor shall commit any such offense, shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code, or in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine not exceeding twenty thousand dollars ($20,000), or by both such fine and imprisonment.”)
See also Penal Code 1170(h) PC – Determinate sentencing. (“(h)(1) Except as provided in paragraph (3), a felony punishable pursuant to this subdivision where the term is not specified in the underlying offense [such as felony California Health & Safety Code 11156] shall be punishable by a term of imprisonment in a county jail for 16 months, or two or three years.”)
10 Pasadena criminal defense attorney Kathik Krishnan is an energetic young attorney who has focused on criminal defense work since his days as a law student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. Krishnan regularly defends people charged with drug crimes like prescribing controlled substances to an addict in the Superior Courts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties.