Anthem Education Group

Drug Classifications

Drugs are classified for two major purposes with different emphases: by therapeutic category, and as controlled substances.

A drug’s therapeutic category refers to its purpose—the diseases or conditions it treats. Many drugs belong to more than one therapeutic category because they treat or relieve more than one symptom or disease. (

There is no set standard for drug categories. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used to maintain a category list, but stopped doing this after passage of Medicare Part D. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the agency that operates Medicare, maintains a therapeutic drug category list. (Google Answers)

Most health plans either adhere to the CMS list, or publish their own categories. Differences usually depend on the purpose a drug has been prescribed. For example, Botox, is almost never covered for cosmetic purposes as few health plans cover cosmetic procedures. However, Botox was recently approved by the FDA to treat migraines and will probably be approved by most plans for this purpose. In addition, CMS almost always covers FDA-approved drugs.

The other major drug classification system comes from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and was created to control the flow of prescription and illegal drugs. DEA created five schedules that describe the extent that a drug may be abused regardless of its efficacy.  These schedules are determined by a framework described in the Controlled Substances Act:

  • A drug’s actual or relevant potential for abuse
  • Scientific evidence of a drug’s pharmacological effects, such as whether or not it can cause hallucinations
  • The state of current scientific knowledge about the substance
  • The drug’s history and patterns of abuse
  • Scope, duration, and significance of abuse
  • Risk to public health
  • Assessment of the drug’s psychic or psychological liabilities
  • Whether the drug is an immediate precursor of a currently controlled substance

(U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

Below are descriptions of each of the five drug schedules.

  • Schedule I drugs are the most restricted. They have high potential for abuse, have no medically accepted purpose to use in treatment in the U.S., and are not safe to use even under medical supervision. Examples include illegal drugs, including marijuana and heroin.
  • Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse but are acceptable for some treatment purposes, with severe restrictions. Abuse can lead to psychological or physical dependence. Examples include morphine, methadone, and cocaine.
  • Schedule III drugs are not as likely to be abused and are medically accepted for use in the U.S. Abuse can lead to moderate to low physical dependence and high psychological dependence. Examples include steroids, codeine, and some barbiturates.
  • Schedule IV drugs have a low potential for abuse. They are currently accepted for use in the U.S. They can lead to limited physical or psychological dependence. Examples include Valim and Xanax.
  • Schedule V drugs are similar to Schedule IV drugs but with milder potential for dependency. Examples include over-the-counter cough and cold medicines.

(Drug Enforcement Administration)

You can study for a pharmacy technician degree or diploma at several Anthem Education campuses.

Learn more at our Web site or call 1.866.502.2627.

“Drug Classes.” n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

“List of Therapeutic Class Codes by the FDA or NDC.” Google Answers. 19 June 2005. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Drugs of Abuse. U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. 2011 edition. Web. 18 Oct. 2010.

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