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Drug Trafficking and Drug Distribution

Police pull drugs out of a car at at drug trafficking crime scene

Drug trafficking is selling, transporting, or importing illegal drugs. Another name for this crime is drug distribution. Drug trafficking is:

  • A federal crime (the laws are decided by Congress and apply to the entire nation)
  • A felony crime (involves very serious penalties or prison time)
  • Not the same as drug possession, which typically involves a smaller amount for personal use and may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony

Drug Trafficking Laws Overview

Drug distribution or trafficking is criminalized by both federal and state laws. Such laws penalize the selling, transportation, and illegal import of unlawful controlled substances. Among others, these include marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines.

The punishment for drug trafficking can vary widely depending on several factors. These include the type and quantity of drugs, geographic area of distribution, and whether children were targeted. Sentences for drug distribution and trafficking generally range from 3-5 years to life in prison. They may be substantially higher when large amounts of drugs are involved.

Drug trafficking/distribution is a felony and is a more serious crime than drug possession. If you're found in possession of drugs, you could be charged with trafficking if police believe you intended to sell them. If you're found with a large quantity of drugs or cash at the time of your arrest, you'll likely face drug distribution charges. You could be charged even if you are deemed in constructive possession of drugs.

Drug distribution or trafficking also applies to the illegal distribution of prescription drugs, such as painkillers or sleeping pills. The illegal distribution of prescription drugs often involves hydrocodone products and pharmaceutical opiates.

Drug Trafficking and Controlled Substances

When a state or federal government classifies a substance as "controlled," it generally means that the use and distribution of the substance are governed by law. Controlled substances are often classified at different levels, or "schedules," under federal and state statutes. For instance, marijuana and LSD are listed as Schedule I controlled substances under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Cocaine and fentanyl are listed under Schedule II and anabolic steroids under Schedule III.

The act lists the drugs that fall under each schedule.

  • Schedule I means the drug is classified as highly addictive, has no accepted medical use, and is not deemed safe even under medical supervision.
  • Schedule II means the drug is highly addictive, has medical uses, and may lead to severe drug dependence.
  • Schedule III means the drug has a low potential for abuse, has accepted medical uses, and poses a moderate risk of dependence.
  • Schedule IV and V both have a low potential for drug abuse, have accepted medical uses, and have limited potential for dependence.

Trafficking Charges

Both federal and state laws come into play in drug trafficking cases. If a person is caught trafficking a controlled substance across state lines, federal law will apply, but if the drug trafficking is entirely within one state, that state's laws will apply.

There are a multitude of federal drug laws on the books, plus each state has its own set of drug laws. Many state laws are modeled after federal laws and provide mandatory minimum sentences for offenders. These mandatory minimums are based on the type of drug and the amount of drugs for which the defendant was charged.

Lawmakers generally pass these laws to deter major drug cartels, but more often lower-level dealers are the ones who get prosecuted. Indeed, the controversy around drug trafficking laws is that a petty drug dealer can often face a longer sentence than violent criminals. Civil forfeiture of vehicles and other property that law enforcement ties to drug trafficking is also a hot-button issue.

Federal Drug Trafficking Charges

The federal government prohibits any person from manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, or possessing controlled substances. A person found in violation is subject to sentencing based on the quantity of the prohibited substance. The details about prison sentences and fines for controlled substances are found in federal statutes. A few of the applicable penalties:

  • 10 years to life in prison for 1 kilogram of heroin, 5 kilograms of cocaine, or 1,000 kilograms of marijuana
  • Five to 40 years for 100 grams of heroin or 500 grams of cocaine
  • Not more than five years for 50 kilograms of marijuana

The prison sentences increase for higher amounts of controlled substances. There are also penalty enhancements if death or serious bodily injury results and for prior convictions. In addition, prison term enhancements can apply to convictions for drug trafficking if the person is considered the leader of a criminal operation or if a firearm is involved.

Note that the firearm sentences are not concurrent with the sentence for drug trafficking. This means that the convicted person would serve the prison term for the drug offense and then serve the additional term for the firearm afterward.

State Drug Trafficking Charges

Just like federal law, all states prohibit the manufacture, distribution, or possession of controlled substances. Typically, state prison sentences are less than federal prison sentences, but not always. Further, states control smaller amounts than the federal government. For instance, Arizona assumes that if a person possesses 1 gram of heroin, 9 grams of cocaine, or 2 pounds of marijuana, it is intended for distribution.

Legalized Marijuana

The legalization of marijuana by some states has thrown a monkey wrench into drug trafficking laws. Marijuana is still illegal as far as the federal government is concerned, and federal enforcement has not changed even in places that have legalized it on a state level.

It is important to note that trafficking certain amounts of marijuana can still be illegal even where cannabis itself is legal. For instance, it is a felony drug crime in Colorado to transport as little as 4 ounces of cannabis, with jail time and fines increasing with higher quantities.

Get Legal Help With Your Drug Trafficking Case

Drug trafficking charges could result in jail time, seized assets, and a ruined reputation, not to mention a criminal record. Whether you are charged in federal court or state court, it's in your best interest to contact a local criminal defense attorney to discuss your case and learn about your options moving forward. A criminal defense lawyer can explain how your situation may play out under current state and federal law.

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