The prescription drug abuse epidemic in America is attracting increasing attention from both the media and law enforcement.
Increasingly, the people facing criminal charges related to prescription drug abuse are not just the individuals who are addicted to drugs like hydrocodone (Vicodin) or codeine. Doctors, pharmacists, nurses and other medical professionals are finding themselves under law enforcement scrutiny as well.
Two common charges we are often asked about are prescription fraud (California Health & Safety Code 11153 HS) and prescribing controlled substances to an addict (California Health & Safety Code 11156 HS). Both of these charges are regularly brought against health care providers. But what is the difference between them?
The difference in legal definition between HS 11153 and HS 11156
HS 11153 and HS 11156 address slightly different behaviors.
Prescription fraud under HS 11153 is the act of knowingly writing a prescription that is not for a legitimate medical purpose or is outside the usual course of treatment. Note that this crime can only be committed by someone with the authority to prescribe drugs--such as a doctor or nurse practitioner.
Also, under HS 11153 prescription fraud law, it also does not matter whether the person you prescribe drugs to is an addict or wants the drugs for some other reason (for example, to sell them, or use them to enhance academic or athletic performance).
Providing controlled substances to an addict under HS 11156, on the other hand, occurs when someone prescribes, administers OR dispenses controlled substances to an addict, or someone who claims to be an addict. This means that the crime may be committed by health care providers or caregivers who can't actually prescribe drugs themselves--like pharmacists or nursing home workers.
Also, you are only guilty of HS 11156 if you are aware that the person receiving the drugs is an addict.
In practice, many people are charged under both Health & Safety Code 11153 HS and Health & Safety Code 11156 HS.
Here are some examples of scenarios in which people might be charged with one or the other of these crimes.
HS 11153 prescription fraud: May is a doctor. She regularly sees homeless patients who claim to be suffering from chronic pain. May is aware that these patients are actually seeking prescriptions for powerful painkillers that they then turn around and sell to a local drug dealer--who will, in turn, take them to rural areas and sell them to opioid addicts. May writes prescriptions for these drugs anyway. She is guilty of prescription fraud.
HS 11156 prescribing drugs to an addict: Bill is a small-town pharmacist. A customer brings him a prescription for Vicodin. Bill is friends with the customer's sister and has heard from her that the man is addicted to Vicodin. But Bill fills the prescription anyway. He is guilty of prescribing drugs to an addict.
Both HS 11153 and HS 11156: Sam is the personal physician to a celebrity. He regularly writes the celebrity prescriptions for drugs that she has no medical need for but instead distributes to her friends at parties. He also sometimes administers intravenous painkillers to her even though she displays signs of physical addiction to those painkillers. He can be charged with both prescription fraud and prescribing controlled substances to an addict.
Penalties for prescription fraud and prescribing controlled substances to an addict
These distinctions aside, the penalties for HS 11153 and HS 11156 are very similar.
Both are wobblers--which means that they can be charged as either a misdemeanor or a felony, at the discretion of the prosecutor. Both carry a maximum jail sentence of one (1) year when charged as a misdemeanor, and up to three (3) years when charged as a felony.