Drug Trafficking and Drug Distribution

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

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.

Drug Trafficking: Crime Overview

Drug trafficking is both a federal crime and a felony crime. This means:

  • 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)

Drug Trafficking Laws: Sentencing Overview

The punishment for drug trafficking can vary widely depending on several factors. These include:

  • The type and quantity of drugs
  • Geographic area of distribution
  • 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 vs. Drug Possession

Drug trafficking is not the same as drug possession. Possession typically involves a smaller amount for personal use and may be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony.

Drug trafficking/distribution is a felony and is a more serious crime than drug possession. You could be charged with trafficking if police find you in possession of drugs and believe you intend to sell them.

You'll likely face drug distribution charges if you're found with a large quantity of drugs or cash at the time of your arrest. You could be charged even if you are deemed in constructive possession of drugs. "Constructive possession" is where you are charged with illegally possessing something that isn't actually in your possession. An example might be carrying a friend's backpack that has drugs inside you don't know about.

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

The state or federal government can classify a substance as "controlled." This generally means that the use and distribution of the substance are governed by law.

Controlled substances are often classified at different levels, called "schedules," under federal and state statutes. For instance, marijuana and LSD are listed as Schedule I controlled substances under the federal Controlled Substances Act. Drugs like cocaine and fentanyl are listed under Schedule II and anabolic steroids are under Schedule III.

The act lists the drugs that fall under each schedule:

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

Drug Trafficking Charges: The Basics

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

There are many federal drug laws and each state has its own set of laws. Many state laws are modeled after federal laws with mandatory minimum sentences for offenders. These mandatory minimums are based on:

  1. The type of drug
  2. The amount of drugs the defendant was charged with

Controversy With Drug Laws

Lawmakers generally pass these laws to deter major drug cartels. Unfortunately, often lower-level dealers are the ones who get prosecuted.

There is controversy surrounding drug trafficking laws because a petty drug dealer can often face a longer sentence than a violent criminal. Civil forfeiture of vehicles and other property that law enforcement ties to drug trafficking is also a controversial issue.

Federal Drug Trafficking Charge Overview

The federal government prohibits any person from manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, or possessing controlled substances. A person found in violation may be sentenced 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 are:

  • 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 will 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
  • 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.

States also control smaller amounts than the federal government. For instance, Arizona assumes the drugs are intended for distribution if a person possesses 1 gram of heroin, 9 grams of cocaine, or 2 pounds of marijuana.

Legalized Marijuana

The legalization of marijuana by some states has caused some issues with drug trafficking laws. Marijuana is still illegal as far as the federal government is concerned. Additionally, 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. Jail time and fines increase with higher quantities of cannabis.

Get Legal Help With Your Drug Trafficking Case

Drug trafficking charges could result in jail time, seized assets, a ruined reputation, and a criminal record. Whether you are charged in federal or state court, you need help.

It's in your best interest to contact a local criminal defense attorney to discuss your case. They will help you 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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