Drug Charges

In the early 1970s, America launched a "War on Drugs." New drug laws and law enforcement efforts sought to control and limit the public possession and use of illegal substances. 

Fifty years later, U.S. authorities arrest over one million people each year for drug offenses. But researchers find little correlation between imprisonment for drug crimes and the prevalence of drug abuse.

The illegal trafficking and use of drugs like cocaine, fentanyl, and methamphetamine remain serious criminal charges at both the federal and state levels. This includes crimes focused on the manufacturing, cultivation, trafficking, distribution, and possession of a controlled substance. A drug conviction can carry significant penalties. Sentencing in drug cases may include prison or jail time, fines, and costs. Sometimes, prosecutors will offer plea deals to lower-level offenders in exchange for help with a larger case.

Illegal drug abuse causes large-scale problems that ripple through society. Addiction and violence from the drug trade disrupt people's lives and families. Efforts to reform drug laws have increased in recent years. Many states provide diversion or drug court programs for first-time offenders. Most states have legalized the adult use of marijuana for medical or recreational purposes. When drug possession charges involve amounts consistent with personal use, courts often focus more on probation and treatment rather than incarceration.

The articles in Findlaw's Drug Charges section provide an overview of federal and state laws dealing with drug trafficking and abuse. They also discuss key law enforcement agencies, drug charges, penalties, and defenses.

The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970

Responding to increasing recreational drug use and drug crime in the United States, Congress took action. It passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970. The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) was Title II of the new law. These laws set up a complex regulatory system to control the distribution of controlled substances.

The CSA established five schedules of drugs. Each schedule addressed concerns related to a drug's likelihood of abuse and its level of accepted medical use.

Drugs placed in Schedule I represented those that were highly addictive and had no medical use. This included heroin, LSD, and marijuana. Drugs placed in Schedules II through V all had medical use but descended in terms of drug dependence or addiction. Drug crimes often tracked the schedules. Thus, trafficking or possession of Schedule I and Schedule II drugs brought more serious consequences than drugs in Schedule III, IV, and V.

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

Established in 1973, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the federal law enforcement agency that enforces the nation's drug laws. It works with international partners to counter drug smuggling and distribution networks. It's part of the U.S. Department of Justice. It often works with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as well as with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The DEA also serves as a regulatory agency. It oversees the scheduling of controlled substances in the U.S. This includes all prescription drugs that fall under the CSA.

Drug Crimes

Drug crimes exist in both federal and state law. By sheer volume, state and local prosecutors file most drug cases. Federal drug charges range from simple possession to illegal manufacture, distribution, and trafficking in controlled substances. Federal drug offenders face consequences that vary based on the amount and type of drug involved. Large amounts of a Schedule I drug (other than marijuana) are likely to bring 10 or more years in federal prison. In a criminal case where someone dies or suffers serious harm, the penalties may go up to 20 years, or even life in prison.

Many states model their drug crimes from the federal schedules and statutes. Depending on the type of drug and the amount, felony drug charges will vary. Conviction for drug possession charges involving small amounts of drugs may lead to suspended time and probation. Drug trafficking convictions for larger amounts may lead to harsher prison sentences. If offenses occur near a school or a child or the offender has a prior criminal record, the degree of the offense may increase, along with the penalties.

For example, under the Utah Controlled Substances Act, the degree of the offense will vary based on the schedule of the drug involved. Production, manufacture, or possession with intent to distribute a Schedule I or Schedule II drug is a second-degree felony. A convicted offender can face up to 15 years in prison, a $10,000 fine, or both. The same misconduct involving a Schedule III or Schedule IV drug or marijuana will be a third-degree felony. The offender may face up to 5 years in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both. When the offense deals with a Schedule V drug, the crime is a Class A misdemeanor. The possible penalty is up to 364 days in jail, a $2,500 fine, or both.

Drug possession charges can involve the actual or constructive possession of a controlled substance. The state may prove constructive possession when you have control or access over the drug even though it's not on your person.

Federal and state laws also prohibit the possession of drug paraphernalia. This crime is often a misdemeanor. Items like scales and packaging materials support law enforcement theories of distribution. Pipes and spoons may more likely show the offender is an abuser.

Legalization and Decriminalization of Marijuana

California approved medical marijuana use in 1996. Since then, states have made major changes to laws prohibiting the possession or use of marijuana (also known as cannabis). Today, 24 states permit recreational use of marijuana for adults aged 21 and over. Some 38 states have medical marijuana laws on the books. Almost every state has also engaged in efforts to decriminalize simple possession of marijuana. They have often reduced the penalties or changed the offense to a non-reportable infraction.

In contrast, the federal government has not changed its treatment of marijuana. The drug remains in Schedule I under federal law, where any possession is illegal. President Biden directed the Attorney General to look into the matter. The DEA is currently reviewing a request to move marijuana to Schedule III. In the interim, the federal government continues to take a "hands-off" approach to state efforts to legalize marijuana.

How a Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help You

If you're facing drug charges, getting legal advice from an experienced criminal defense lawyer is a smart move. Besides the criminal penalties involved, a drug conviction can lead to many negative consequences. With various reform efforts, drug laws continue to change each year. Consider talking with a qualified criminal defense attorney in your area.

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