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Understanding Prescription Fraud Laws in North Carolina

Prescription fraud laws cover a serious offense outlined in Chapter 90 of the North Carolina General Statutes. These laws regulate the medical professionals who write prescriptions, the patients who fill them, and the pharmacists who dispense the medications.

Whether you’re a healthcare provider, pharmacist, or patient, understanding the intricacies of these regulations is crucial to avoid legal repercussions. 

So let’s examine the specific legal provisions, citing directly from the statutes, to provide a clear, easy-to-understand guide. We’ll also look at the types of penalties that prescription drug charges can bring and how controlled substance laws work in NC.

What is Prescription Drug Fraud in North Carolina?

Prescription drug fraud is a form of deceit involving the unlawful acquisition or distribution of prescription medications.

Chapter 90 of the North Carolina General Statutes sets the legal framework for what constitutes prescription drug fraud. It outlines the responsibilities and prohibitions for healthcare providers and individuals obtaining prescriptions.

In the most basic terms, prescription fraud in North Carolina can happen in several ways.

  • Forging a prescription
  • Altering an existing prescription
  • Using someone else’s prescription to get medication

Here are some of the more common forms of prescription fraud seen in the court system:

  • Posing as a doctor or other licensed healthcare provider to obtain prescriptions
  • Stealing prescription medication from a workplace with intent to distribute or for personal use
  • Lying to a physician or withholding information to get a prescription
  • Doctor shopping: Going to multiple physicians with the same concern to receive multiple prescriptions
  • Using forgery to fake a legitimate prescription or otherwise fraudulently obtaining medication – this includes stealing prescription pads for forgery purposes
  • Altering prescriptions, such as the strength or amount of a medication on a prescription
  • Using a false registration number to manufacture and/or distribute a substance

Patients, consumers, physicians, healthcare facilities, healthcare companies, pharmacists, and others can all face prosecution for breaking prescription drug laws.

Medical professionals often face charges for actions such as:

  • Writing prescriptions without a legitimate medical reason
  • Prescribing medication to individuals they know will misuse it

Both pharmacists and healthcare providers have stringent guidelines. For example, pharmacists are required to validate prescriptions and report any suspicious activities. Healthcare providers must adhere to specific procedures when issuing prescriptions, especially for controlled substances.

Penalties for Fraud Involving Prescription Drugs in NC

The penalties for prescription drug fraud can be quite severe in North Carolina. Depending on the specific nature and severity of the offense, individuals can face a range of repercussions that may include fines, imprisonment, or both.

For first-time offenders, the penalties often start with a misdemeanor charge, but repeat offenses or larger-scale fraud operations can result in felony charges.

Facing a felony conviction can lead to significant jail time and affect future employment opportunities and civil rights, such as the right to vote or possess firearms.

Healthcare providers guilty of fraudulent prescribing practices could face additional penalties beyond criminal charges. Their professional licenses may be revoked or suspended. They may also face civil lawsuits from patients or their families. If the fraud involves federal healthcare programs such as Medicare, healthcare providers may also face federal charges.

Pharmacists are also not exempt from penalties. They can face similar legal repercussions if found complicit in prescription fraud activities, including loss of professional license and civil liabilities.

Needing a Strong Defense Against Charges

Given the severe penalties and long-lasting consequences, anyone facing charges for prescribing, dispensing, or using illegal prescription drugs needs an ally. Talking with an experienced defense attorney focusing on these prescription drug charges can help you find your way.

The following are some specific examples of prescription crimes requiring a solid legal defense team:

  • Forgery of Prescriptions: Forging a prescription in North Carolina is generally classified as a Class 1 misdemeanor under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-108(a)(10). A conviction can lead to fines and imprisonment ranging from one day to 120 days, depending on prior convictions.
  • Illegal Possession: If someone is caught with a forged or illegal prescription, they can face charges under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-108(a)(7), also generally a Class 1 misdemeanor.
  • Fraudulent Drug Delivery: According to N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-108(a)(12), healthcare providers who deliver a counterfeit or altered substance as if it’s a genuine controlled substance could face Class I felony charges.
  • Unlawful Dispensing by Pharmacists: If a pharmacist knowingly dispenses medication based on a forged or altered prescription, they may be charged under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-108(a)(14), potentially resulting in a Class I felony.
  • Sale or Delivery by Practitioners: Healthcare providers who illegally sell, deliver, or distribute prescription drugs can be charged under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-108(a)(1). The charges for this offense are typically Class I felonies.

Both healthcare providers and pharmacists found guilty of these offenses may also face professional repercussions, including the potential revocation of their licenses.

Given the gravity of these penalties, it’s essential for healthcare providers, pharmacists, and patients to talk with an experienced criminal defense attorney if facing prescription fraud charges.

Controlled Substances: Prescription Drug Abuse and Charges

Possessing illegal or prescribed Schedule II, III, or IV controlled substances is usually a Class 1 misdemeanor. Penalties can range from one day to 120 days in jail, depending on your criminal history.

Below is a general guide to the types of substances commonly found in each schedule. Consult the latest version of North Carolina’s statutes for the most current information on the categorization of substances 

Schedule II Controlled Substances:

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-90 covers these substances:

  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Morphine
  • Fentanyl
  • Methadone
  • Amphetamines (Adderall)

Schedule III Controlled Substances:

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-95(a)(3) governs Schedule III controlled substances, including:

  • Anabolic steroids
  • Ketamine
  • Some barbiturates
  • Substances containing limited amounts of certain narcotics like codeine
  • Phentermine

Schedule IV Controlled Substances:

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-90 covers these substances:

  • Alprazolam (Xanax)
  • Diazepam (Valium)
  • Lorazepam (Ativan)
  • Clonazepam (Klonopin)
  • Zolpidem (Ambien)
  • Tramadol

Possessing, distributing, or manufacturing substances without a valid prescription or medical need can result in severe criminal charges by law enforcement officers under North Carolina law.

Schedule I Controlled Substances:

In North Carolina, Schedule I controlled substances are regulated by Chapter 90 of the North Carolina General Statutes, specifically under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-89.

Schedule I substances generally have a high potential for abuse, no accepted medical use, or lack accepted safety for medical use.

Here’s a general guide to some types of substances commonly categorized as Schedule I:

  • Heroin
  • Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
  • Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA or “Ecstasy”)
  • Methaqualone
  • Cannabis (Marijuana)
  • Psilocybin (“Magic Mushrooms”)

If law enforcement catches you in possession, distribution, or manufacture of any Schedule I substances, you can face severe criminal charges, such as a Class I felony, under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-95(a)(3)

Penalties can include imprisonment ranging from 3 to 12 months.

Distribution or Manufacture: 

Selling or creating controlled substances is a more serious offense, often resulting in Class G, H, or I felonies depending on the substance and amount

You can read more about the law regarding these crimes under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-95(a)(1) and § 90-95(a)(2).

Mitigating and Aggravating Circumstances

The penalties may be more lenient or harsher depending on specific circumstances.

For example, a court may consider a first-time offender with no prior criminal record to have mitigating factors resulting in lighter penalties.

On the other hand, a court might view distribution near schools or to minors as an aggravating circumstance resulting in stiffer penalties.

No One Is Above the Law

Many of the substances listed above are illegal drugs and not prescribed medications. Others are prescription opioids that can cause addiction, even when taken as prescribed. 

Prescription painkillers are often a drug that health professionals can struggle with. According to the Butler Center for Research,

“…Prescription drug abuse and addiction among Health Care Providers has continued to grow significantly—especially for anesthetic and analgesic (painkiller) agents. Studies in the United States have shown that 10%–15% percent of Healh Care Providers will misuse substances during their lifetime, and rates of prescription drug abuse and addiction are 5 times higher among physicians than in the general population, with especially high rates of benzodiazepine and opioid abuse.

Physicians are not the only [ones] affected by drug and alcohol abuse: A 2010 investigation into the Texas Board of Nursing found that approximately one-third of all disciplinary actions taken against nurses were drug or alcohol related.”

Role of a Criminal Defense Attorney

Consulting an attorney is crucial if you face charges related to prescription drug abuse or controlled substances.

Experienced legal counsel can navigate the complexities of prescription fraud, unlawful possession, or other charges you can face for obtaining or providing prescription medicines illegally.

Your attorney can potentially find mitigating circumstances that might lead to lesser charges or penalties.

Furthermore, your attorney might help you qualify for a diversion program. These programs often involve substance abuse treatment and education rather than jail time. Diversion programs are especially beneficial for first-time offenders.

We Can Help

At Scharff Law, we understand how overwhelming it can be to navigate the complexities of North Carolina’s prescription drug and controlled substances laws.

Whether you’re a troubled healthcare provider, a pharmacist caught in a crime, or an individual facing illegal prescription charges, our dedicated legal team guides you every step of the way.

We evaluate your case, identify potential mitigating factors, and explore options like prescription drug diversion programs or plea agreements that could lead to reduced charges or lighter penalties.

Don’t go through this challenging time alone. Reach out to us today for the professional legal guidance you need.