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What are Drug Crimes?

In the U.S., federal and state drug charges span a variety of distinct laws and statutes addressing the sale, manufacturing, use, and possession of controlled substances:

  • Drug possession charges apply for having an illegal drug, or in some cases, drug paraphernalia, whether it’s for personal use or to sell.
  • Drug dealing or selling charges apply for selling or attempting to sell an illegal drug or a controlled substance that the seller doesn’t have the credentials to administer legally.
  • Drug manufacturing or cultivating charges apply for making, processing, or growing illegal drugs. Possessing certain chemicals that are commonly used to produce drugs and have limited other practical purposes may lead to manufacturing charges, even if the actual drug isn’t present. Playing any part in a drug-making process can qualify.
  • Drug distribution or drug trafficking charges apply for growing, making, delivering, transporting, importing, or selling illegal drugs. Crossing state lines to unlawfully sell controlled substances is more likely to lead to trafficking charges than dealing charges.

What are the Penalties for Drug Crimes?

Federal and state laws define different misdemeanor and felony levels of drug crimes.

As with other criminal proceedings, prosecutors may choose to charge people with multiple crimes related to the same events. For instance, an individual arrested for transporting narcotics across state lines could receive additional criminal charges for unlawful possession and illegal sale of illegal drugs. Possessing drugs in large amounts beyond what would be expected for personal use could bring about charges for possession with the intent to distribute.

Other important factors to consider include the nature of the drugs involved. The federal Controlled Substances Act classifies drugs under different “schedules” that correspond to their perceived potential for harm, abuse, or medicinal use:

  • Schedule I drugs include those considered to have no valid medical purpose and a high risk for abuse. Ecstasy, LSD, and cannabis are types of Schedule I drugs on the federal level; even in states where medicinal or medical marijuana possession is legal, it’s still against the law to the federal government.
  • Schedule II drugs include those considered to have high potential for abuse, high risk of harm, and high risk of addiction. Methamphetamine, cocaine, and many types of prescription drugs, especially pain management opioids like oxycodone and fentanyl, are types of Schedule II drugs.
  • Schedule III drugs include those considered to have moderate to low risks for addiction and moderate risk for abuse. Anabolic steroids and ketamine are types of Schedule III drugs.
  • Schedule IV drugs include those considered to have low potential for abuse and addiction. Prescription benzodiazepines and sedatives like Xanax, Valium, and Ambien are types of Schedule IV drugs.
  • Schedule V drugs include those considered to have low risk for abuse. Over-the-counter pain medications, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, and certain cough medicines are types of Schedule V drugs.

The higher the classification, the harsher the sentence. Federally, first-time offenders trafficking any amount of a schedule V substance face prison sentences up to one year and fines up to $100,000. On the other end of the spectrum, first-time offenders who traffic certain quantities of schedule I and II drugs, such as 100 to 999 grams of heroine, face a minimum jail sentence of 20 years up to life imprisonment and fines of up to $20 million. Each state can add their own restrictions and penalties beyond the federal drug crimes.

The resulting criminal record for a drug offense conviction may negatively impact employment, housing options, participation in student financial aid programs, child custody and visitation rights, and professional certifications.

How Does the Court Prove Drug Crimes?

Narcotics charges can be confusing, because drug laws aren’t uniform. For instance, as states legalize cannabis for medical and recreational use, conflicts arise over local and federal laws. Social problems like the opioid epidemic have resulted in new initiatives that may increase the impact that drug possession laws have on patients prescribed such drugs.

Legal issues that involve drug trafficking may lead to accusations of conspiracy, racketeering, and other organized crime offenses. Since these cases center on evidence of intentional wrongdoing, defense lawyers may mount counterarguments based on factors like:

  • Whether police searches and seizures were legal and within the bounds of a defendant’s constitutional rights
  • The reliability of witness testimonies
  • What type of drugs were involved, and in what amount
  • The strength of circumstantial evidence
  • Whether law enforcement can prove that the alleged violations were committed purposefully or knowingly

Do I Need a Criminal Defense Attorney for Drug Crimes?

It’s critical for the accused to fight drug crime charges. Criminal defense attorneys with experience in drug crime cases and criminal law may construct strategies to counter the allegations and reduce the potential penalties if convicted, such as by arguing their client suffers from addiction and would be better served by drug treatment or diversion programs instead of incarceration.

Many drug crime lawyers offer free consultations that allow defendants to understand their options and get specific legal advice before committing to legal representation. These consultations typically create an attorney-client relationship that legally mandates confidentiality, even if the defendant decides not to hire any criminal defense lawyers from that law firm.

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