On a Thursday afternoon, two friends, Alex and Mike, headed down to their school cafeteria to break for lunch before their next class. After buying their lunches, they looked for a place to sit down. The cafeteria was quite full that day, and so there were few places for them to eat their lunches. Since the weather was nice outside, they decided to have lunch on the steps outside of their high school.

As they sat down, another student walked towards them. Neither Alex nor Mike had seen the student before, though they could tell by his uniform that he belonged to their school. The student took a seat next to them and whispered, “Hey, you guys want to have some fun today?” Alex and Mike looked at each other for a moment and curiously shrugged their shoulders. “We might,” Alex said. “Why, what’s your deal?”

The student took out a small bag from his pocket. Inside were five blue capsules. In a quiet voice he explained what was in the bag. “These are Ritalin pills. Me and my friends call them Vitamin R,” he said. “When you take a few of these, it’s like you’re a genius. You’ll feel super focused, like you can tackle anything.”

Mike responded, “I’ve never heard of these before.  Where’d you get them?” The student paused for a second before answering the question. “I know a guy whose older brother had ADHD.  He used to take the pills to help him concentrate, but he went away to university.  My friend tells me that there are a bunch of these pills left over in his house now. So, he gives some to me too. Would you guys be interested in buying some from me or what?”

Looking uncertain, Alex asked, “But what if we get caught with these things? We’d probably get suspended or something?” The student responded, “No way man, prescription drugs aren’t as bad as weed or alcohol. There really isn’t much to worry about.” Mike then asked, “You’re certain?” The student confidently answered, “Yes.”

Mike and Alex then handed the student some money in exchange for the pills.

Is it illegal to buy prescription drugs outside a pharmacy, or to use them for non-prescription reasons?
You need a prescription to buy prescription drugs (certain kinds of medication) for a few reasons.  Prescription drugs usually contain chemical ingredients that can be dangerous if taken in the wrong amount or in the wrong combinations.  One of the roles of a pharmacist is to help you understand how to take a drug correctly – for example, whether you need to eat food at the same time you take a pill, or whether two different drugs will work incorrectly if taken together, even though they would both work well on their own.  Getting a prescription filled at a pharmacy helps to make sure you have all the right information before you start taking a drug, so that it doesn’t hurt your body.  Another reason that you need a prescription for medication is that medications can be harmful in large quantities.  Prescriptions help make sure only people who need certain drugs are getting them.  Similarly, some drugs can be addictive and addiction can damage people’s lives and relationships.  Since prescriptions control access to drugs, they are one way of preventing addiction to drugs that might be helpful for a medical treatment but addictive if not used correctly.
If you have a prescription for a drug, it is legal for you to “possess” (have) that drug.  If you don’t have a prescription, and you buy the drug from someone other than a pharmacy, then it may be illegal for you to have the drug.  All drugs fall within a Canadian criminal law called the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act  (CDSA), and possession of them can be a crime.  The Acthas five big sections called “schedules,” and each one contains lists of different kinds of drugs.  If you have a drug that is in Schedule I, II, or III, and you don’t have a prescription for it, you are committing a criminal offence called “possession.”  Selling these drugs illegally is called “trafficking.”  Buying prescription drugs in these categories outside a pharmacy is no different than buying other kinds of illegal drugs, like cocaine or marijuana – you can still get in trouble with the law.
Ritalin, the drug sold to Mike and Alex, has an active ingredient called methylphenidate, which is listed under Schedule III of the CDSA.  This means that Mike and Alex are in illegal possession of the drug. And, it means that the other student is illegally trafficking the drug.
The bottom line: Buying, selling, and possessing prescription drugs without a prescription is a criminal offence, and can lead to negative consequences.  Depending on which prescription drug is involved, it can even be more serious than other illegal drugs.
This blog post was written by PLE Team Member and JFCY Volunteer Stefan Venier.  Legal information by JFCY.
If you are a youth in Ontario facing criminal drug charges or have legal questions about drug charges, please contact a lawyer at JFCY at 416-920-1633, or toll-free at 1-866-999-5329.  You can also read our Youth Guide to Criminal Justice for more information about going to criminal court as a young person.