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Drug Possession Penalties and Sentencing

Those convicted on drug possession charges face a wide gamut of penalties at sentencing, varying from state to state. Penalties for simple possession range from a fine of less than $100 and/or a few days in jail to thousands of dollars and several years in state prison for the same offense. Simple drug possession sentences tend to be the lightest, while intent to distribute drugs, or the cultivation/manufacturing of drugs carry much heavier penalties. Prosecutors sometimes offer plea deals to defendants who may be able to help them with a higher-priority investigation, perhaps leading to the arrest of an organized crime leader.

Federal and State Drug Possession Penalties

Federal lawmakers enacted mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drug offenses in 1986 in an attempt to target high-level distributors, although they also impact lower-level drug defendants. Most states have adopted a similar approach to drug sentencing. These fixed sentences are based on the type of drug, the weight of the drug, and the number of prior convictions.

For example, Kentucky, which has adopted similar mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, has some of the toughest provisions. For simple possession, first offenders get 2 to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000. In contrast, California has some of the lightest drug possession sentences: between $30 and $500 in fines and/or 15 to 180 days in jail.

Special Drug Courts

Many states have instituted what are known as drug courts, programs for felony drug defendants overseen by a judge that aim to rehabilitate the defendant (often repeat offenders) instead of taking the case to trial. Judges have substantial control over the operation of drug courts. A drug defendant who agrees to drug court spends roughly 12 to 15 months attending treatment sessions and undergoing random drug tests while appearing before the drug court judge on a regular basis. Those who fail to appear in court or fail drug tests are arrested and often given a brief jail sentence.

Other Factors Influencing Drug Possession Penalties

In addition to mandatory minimum sentences, there are other factors that can determine drug possession penalties and sentencing. When fashioning a sentence, courts can look to aggravating or mitigating factors in any given case, such as a defendant’s past record and the amount and type of drug involved. For instance, many states double the penalties for drug convictions if the incident (possession, sale, etc.) occurred within 1,000 feet of a school; this would be an aggravating factor. Alternatively, an individual assisting a drug distribution operation run by an abusive partner may receive a lesser drug charge (the power dynamic related to the abuse would present a mitigating factor).

State Drug Possession Laws

While the federal government has wide latitude to enforce drug laws, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) tends to focus on interstate drug trafficking and larger operations. Drug possession offenses are largely handled by the states, with widely varying sentencing guidelines. Below is a sampling of state penalties pertaining to drug possession:

  • Washington Up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000 for possession of any amount of heroin (double penalties for subsequent offenses).
  • Texas State jail felony (between six months and two years in prison) for possession of less than one gram of cocaine; prison sentence between two and 20 years (plus fine) for possession of between one and 4 grams of cocaine.
  • New York Prison sentence of eight to 20 years for possession of eight or more ounces of a narcotic drug (morphine, heroin, etc.) or 5,760 milligrams of methadone.

Depending on a given state’s sentencing rules, judges may also have a certain degree of discretion and can impose sentences ranging from fines, community service hours and probation to lengthy prison sentences.

State Marijuana Laws

Marijuana possession laws have under gone tremendous changes with many states legalizing marijuana or substantially decriminalizing possession. In the states that have legalized marijuana, there are still restrictions. If you possess under a certain amount, typically 1 ounce, there is no penalty. However, amounts over 1 ounce are subject to increasing fines and penalties depending on the amount. For instance, in Colorado amounts over 2 ounces are subject to misdemeanor charges and amounts over 12 ounces are subject to a felony.

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