Types of Drug Crimes

A person in possession of illegal drugs can face charges of simple possession. They may also face an enhanced charge for possession with the intent to distribute based on the quantity of drugs. The intent to distribute can appear from the amount or weight of the drugs. The greater the quantity of drugs, the more likely an inference that it pertains to more than personal use.

The law places strict limits on the use, possession, manufacture, and distribution of drugs. Federal law regulates drugs and sets up five drug schedules. Placement in a particular schedule comes from knowledge of the drug's accepted medical use and potential for abuse and dependency. State laws tend to follow the federal drug schedules. Marijuana, also known as cannabis, is the notable exception. Many states have sought to decriminalize or legalize personal use of marijuana in recent years.

Drug crime convictions can have severe penalties and lasting consequences. Crimes involving the illegal manufacture, trafficking, or distribution of drugs can bring long prison sentences. This article provides an overview of some common types of drug charges. It will also discuss the potential penalties associated with these crimes.

The Controlled Substances Act

In 1970, Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The CSA created five drug schedules. Drugs placed in Schedule I represent the most dangerous drugs. The government states these drugs have no accepted medical use and a high risk of dependency and abuse. At present, Schedule I drugs include heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and marijuana. 

Schedule II drugs present a high risk for abuse but have limited medical use. Drugs in Schedule II include cocaine, methamphetamine, and opioid drugs such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, fentanyl, and morphine. 

Schedule III drugs, including ketamine and Tylenol with codeine, have medical benefits and a lower risk of dependence and abuse. 

Drugs in Schedule IV, such as Xanax, Ativan, and Valium, have medical use and even lower risk of dependency.

Schedule V contains controlled substances with the lowest potential for abuse. It includes drugs like Lyrica and Robitussin AC.

Drug offenses appear in both federal and state laws. So, a given drug case may involve federal authorities such as the DEA and the FBI, or local law enforcement. Cases brought under federal law will go forward in federal court. State drug cases will take place in local municipal and county courts.

Possession of Scheduled Drugs

A person cannot face prosecution for the status of being under the influence or addicted to illegal drugs. There must be some nexus to criminal behavior. In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a statute criminalizing addiction as unconstitutional in the landmark case Robinson v. California.

The most basic drug charge is possession of illegal drugs. This crime punishes defendants who have illicit substances on their person or in their control. This charge only requires knowledge of the drug's nature and its presence on or near the person. The issue does not turn on ownership, so holding onto someone else's cocaine or heroin could result in criminal charges.

The law permits people to have possession of a controlled substance when they have a valid prescription from a doctor, but the government may bring drug possession charges against those in possession of prescription drugs without a prescription. Because abuse of prescription drugs is a public health crisis, some states may prohibit possession of lawfully prescribed medications outside their original pharmacy packaging.

Illegal possession of drugs often results in a felony drug conviction. In cases involving drug abuse that aligns with personal use, most courts offer diversion and treatment programs instead of punishment. The development of drug court programs represents a major reform from the "War on Drugs" of the 1970s and 1980s.

The legalization and decriminalization of marijuana continues to expand at the state level. As a result, in many states, possessing a small amount of marijuana for personal or medical use is not a crime. Many states where marijuana remains illegal have lowered the criminal penalties associated with it. Offenders may face only a fine or suspended jail time and probation. 

Marijuana possession remains illegal under federal law, but federal authorities often defer to state jurisdiction on such matters. The exception would be large-scale illegal trafficking of marijuana, especially when it crosses state lines.

Drug Dealing and Drug Trafficking

Drug dealing and drug trafficking laws make it illegal to sell, trade, or otherwise exchange scheduled drugs. Some state laws differentiate offenses for selling drugs for value from providing or sharing drugs. Drug trafficking is generally a felony offense. It becomes more serious when a case involves a large amount of drugs, or when a person's death results from drug trafficking. 

Even small-time drug dealing, such as one person selling an amount of scheduled drugs for personal use, can result in a felony conviction. In such cases, the type of drug and the defendant's criminal record may affect the sentence.

According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), federal law provides the potential penalties for drug trafficking charges. For example, 21 U.S.C. Section 841 provides that selling 100 grams of heroin can result in a minimum sentence of five years in prison. That same law provides for a minimum sentence of 10 years for selling 50 grams of methamphetamine.

Federal drug charge penalties are also enhanced if the dealers or traffickers use a firearm while selling drugs. See 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c).

Manufacturing Drugs

Another type of drug crime is drug manufacturing. This may involve any step of the production process of an illegal drug. Federal drug laws prohibit the cultivation of marijuana, which might be entirely legal under state law. The federal government has resisted punishment of state marijuana cultivation at present. It recognizes medical and personal use exceptions in state law in a limited sense. Given the tension in federal and state laws, state regulation of the cannabis industry can be quite complicated.

Another form of drug manufacturing is the production of methamphetamines, commonly known as a meth lab. This crime is especially dangerous because of the harmful chemicals involved in the production process and the risk of fire. A conviction for running a drug manufacturing operation may result in a lengthy prison term.

Possession of Drug Paraphernalia

In general, drug paraphernalia describes any equipment that is used to prepare, inject, or inhale illegal drugs. It also refers to any equipment used to conceal, produce, or package drugs. According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, it is against federal law for anyone to sell, import, or export any type of drug paraphernalia. Many states also prohibit possession of paraphernalia as a misdemeanor offense. Examples of drug paraphernalia include but are not limited to:

  • Pipes and bongs
  • Baggies, scales, cutting agents
  • Rolling papers
  • Syringes and injection kits

Drug paraphernalia can have legitimate purposes. For example, pipes, bongs, and rolling papers often include labeling stating their design for use with tobacco products. Despite such a label, circumstantial evidence can support charges of illegal possession of drug paraphernalia. Police will look for drug residue or evidence of use in conjunction with illegal drugs to bolster claims of a criminal purpose.

Although possession of drug paraphernalia is most often a misdemeanor, states may enhance the crime for sale or transfer of drug paraphernalia to a minor.

More Questions About Drug Crimes? Get Legal Help

Any criminal case involving claims of illegal drug use is serious. If you or someone close to you faces misdemeanor or felony drug charges, consider a consultation with a criminal defense lawyer. An experienced attorney can review your case and discuss defense strategies related to intent and your rights to be free from an illegal search or seizure by police. Consider contacting a local criminal defense attorney familiar with drug crimes today.

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