In the United States, alcohol is not a controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). However, it is subject to certain regulations.

For some, alcohol consumption provides a feeling of relaxation, euphoria, and increased sociability, which is why many people use it in social settings. However, alcohol misuse can have serious consequences, including addiction and physical health problems.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, around 140,000 people in the United States die from alcohol-related causes annually. Because of its potential for abuse, alcohol is subject to regulation here and elsewhere.

This article explains whether alcohol is a controlled substance. It also defines alcohol use disorder and the laws regarding alcohol in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and other countries.

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Alcohol is not a controlled substance in the U.S. under the CSA. However, the federal government regulates its production, distribution, and sale through the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

States have varying definitions of what level of alcohol a product must contain to count as alcoholic. However, many adopt the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) definition of 0.5%.


Alcohol is legal for adults over the age of 21 to consume, with specific restrictions on its use and distribution. For example, the Federal Alcohol Administration Act ensures that only qualified persons engage in the alcohol industry, including selling alcohol or working in establishments that sell it.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration requires that commercial drivers and vehicle operators do not have any alcohol in their system while driving.

What is alcohol use disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by a pattern of alcohol use that leads to significant distress. It is a chronic condition ranging from mild to severe and can affect people of any age, gender, or background.

AUD effects

AUD can cause many physical, psychological, and social issues, including:


Doctors diagnose AUD based on:

  • the frequency and amount of a person’s alcohol use
  • whether they have impaired control over alcohol consumption
  • continued alcohol use despite negative consequences

Treatment for AUD may involve a combination of medication, therapy, and support groups.

Learn more about the long and short-term effects of drinking alcohol here.

In the U.S., the CSA established a classification system for substances based on their potential for abuse and accepted medical uses.

As a result, there are five groups of controlled substances, also known as schedules:

  • Schedule 1 drugs: These have the highest potential for abuse and no accepted medical uses. Examples include heroin, LSD, and cannabis.
  • Schedule 2 drugs: These also have a high potential for abuse. However, they also have some accepted medical uses, such as opioids, including fentanyl and oxycodone.
  • Schedule 3, 4, and 5 drugs: These substances have a lower potential for abuse and various accepted medical uses. Examples include anabolic steroids, benzodiazepines, and cough suppressants containing codeine.

Classifying a drug as a controlled substance impacts its regulation, availability, and the penalties for possession or distribution.

The Drug Enforcement Agency regularly reviews and updates the classification system to reflect new scientific findings and changes in drug use patterns.

A note on discrimination in drug policy

Studies demonstrate that the policies implemented in the United States during the “war on drugs” were based on profound systemic racial discrimination.

Learn more about the long-term effects of disproportionately severe sentencing and unequal enforcement of drug laws among Communities of Color at the Drug Policy Alliance.

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The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 established the classification system for controlled substances in the U.K., which the Home Office and the police enforce.

Controlled substances belong to one of three classes based on their potential for harm and misuse:

  • Class A drugs: These are the most harmful and have the highest potential for abuse, such as heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy.
  • Class B drugs: These have significant potential for abuse but are less harmful than Class A drugs. Examples include amphetamines, cannabis, and ketamine,
  • Class C drugs: These have the lowest potential for harm and include substances such as benzodiazepines, gamma-hydroxybutyrate, and anabolic steroids.

Like in the U.S., the classification of controlled substances in the U.K. affects their regulation and the penalties for possession or distribution. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs oversees and updates the system.

Controlled substance classification systems vary between countries. However, they generally aim to protect the public from the dangers associated with drugs and ensure people only use substances for their intended purposes.

Often, government agencies base substance classifications on criteria such as their:

  • potential for abuse and addiction
  • medical uses
  • potential to cause severe harm

The schedules or categories typically range from most to least dangerous, with the most dangerous subject to the most stringent regulations. Some countries may also have different regulations for specific drugs based on their unique properties and effects.

It is best for individuals to be aware of the regulations regarding controlled substances in their country of residence. Travelers also need to be mindful of local laws and customs regarding drug use in any countries they visit to avoid potential legal issues or health risks.

Alcohol is not a controlled substance. However, the federal government regulates its production, distribution, and sale because of its potential to cause health problems and other issues.

Governments use controlled substance classification systems to regulate drugs that have the potential to create physical, psychological, and social harm. While these systems vary between countries, their stated aim is generally to protect public health and safety.

These classifications influence the availability and legal status of certain substances and usually dictate the penalties for possession and distribution.