Drug crimes encompass a broad range of activities, from simple possession and use all the way up to high-volume manufacturing and trafficking. The statutes governing these activities are equally broad, concerning multiple jurisdictions and sources of law. Any single act involving a controlled substance could potentially invoke a wide variety of state, federal, or civil consequences, including fines, jail time, and property forfeiture.

The respective controlled substances acts of the individual states are the primary sources of law which impose civil and criminal responsibility on violators. Under those Acts, it is illegal for any person to knowingly possess a controlled or counterfeit substance, in any amount, except in certain specified situations. Penalties under these laws can vary greatly, typically depending on the kind of drug involved, the quantity involved, the location of use or sale, and other circumstances.

Controlled substances are typically grouped into a spectrum of different "schedules" or "classes", depending on their danger and potential for abuse. The most dangerous and addictive drugs, such as heroin and LSD, are listed on one end of the spectrum, and crimes involving these drugs are punished the most severely. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the drugs with a commonly accepted medical uses and relatively low potential for abuse, such as certain cough medications, pain killers, and allergy treatments. Crimes involving these drugs are customarily punished lightly, depending on the circumstances.