Federal Drug Crimes and Penalties

Violating federal law can lead to significant prison sentences

By Tim Kelly, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 15, 2023

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Controlled substances are drugs that the federal government has deemed to pose a risk of addiction or harm when abused or misused. Title 21 U.S.C., the federal Controlled Substances Act, categorizes controlled substances into “schedules” based on their likelihood of abuse and harm posed.

You can be charged for both state and federal drug offenses in the United States if you violate controlled substance laws. Common federal drug charges include simple possession of a controlled substance, drug trafficking, and drug conspiracy. Federal sentencing carries mandatory minimum prison sentencing guidelines resulting in severe prison terms.

If you are facing state or federal drug charges, it’s imperative to consult with a criminal defense attorney who specializes in drug charges as soon as possible. This article gives you the information you need to confidently speak with a lawyer.

What Are Federal Drug Categories?

The federal government regulates drugs through the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). This statute takes all controlled substances previously regulated under federal law and places them into five distinct categories called “schedules.”

The schedules are ranked I-V based on the drugs’ usage, safety, and potential for abuse. Schedule I substances are deemed to have the highest potential for abuse and pose the highest risks to the general public.

Here is a breakdown of each schedule:

  • Schedule I: These are the drugs that the federal government has determined have the highest potential for misuse and abuse. Included in this schedule are marijuana, heroin, and L.S.D.
  • Schedule II: These are drugs that have the potential to be abused but also have commonly-accepted medical uses. This classification includes drugs such as fentanyl, codeine, morphine, and methamphetamines.
  • Schedule III: These drugs have commonly accepted medical uses and are found to be less potentially harmful and addicting than Schedule II drugs. This category includes hydrocodone, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen.
  • Schedule IV: These are drugs that have been found to have a relatively low potential for abuse or misuse. This class includes valium, Ambien, and Xanax.
  • Schedule V: This schedule is where you will find drugs with the least chance of being abused. Common Schedule V drugs include narcotics with small amounts of opioids such as Robitussin.What Are Federal Drug Crimes?

What Are Federal Drug Crimes?

At the federal level, drug crimes can be charged in various ways, including:

  • If the crimes were committed on government property
  • If large amounts of controlled substances crossed state lines

Here are some of the more common federally charged drug offenses and their resulting penalties:

Possession of a Controlled Substance

Simple possession of a controlled substance typically involves a small amount of illegal substances.

It is uncommon for this crime to lead to serious jail time. However, if convicted, you could pay fines and be subject to forfeiture of your property (for example, the vehicle used to house drugs).

If you possess a high quantity of illegal drugs, or if the drugs are discovered on government property, you could be charged with a federal crime.

Drug Conspiracy

Cases that involve multiple parties agreeing to violate federal drug law are often charged as drug conspiracies.

In a drug conspiracy case, a defendant can be charged for discussing the crime, even if they do not participate in the underlying offense.

Drug conspiracy federal sentencing can vary depending on what underlying drug crime was allegedly committed by the defendants. Still, mandatory minimum sentencing can apply.

Penalties for Federal Drug Crimes

Violating federal drug laws can lead to severe penalties, including harsh prison sentences. That’s because federal courts impose mandatory minimum sentences for particular violations.

There can also be a fine line between different types of charges. For example, the difference between simple possession and federal drug possession often comes down to the amount of controlled substances the defendant allegedly had when they were detained by law enforcement.

Federal sentencing is often much harsher than the punishments imposed for state crimes. For example, take the mandatory sentencing for drug trafficking:

  • A first offense for this crime can lead to a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison and fines of up to $10 million for an individual
  • A second offense can invoke a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years and fines of up to $20 million for an individual
  • A third offense can sometimes result in a mandatory life sentence and fines of up to $20 million for an individual

What to Do if You’ve Been Charged With a Federal Drug Crime

If you’ve been charged with violating state or federal drug crimes, or if you suspect that criminal charges are imminent, you need to take action quickly. Specifically:

  • Understand what the charges are against you;
  • Understand your legal rights as a criminal defendant;
  • Do not talk to law enforcement without an attorney; and
  • Most importantly: obtain legal representation

The Best Thing You Can Do is Get a Criminal Defense Attorney

If you’re facing legal repercussions for a drug charge, speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

A lawyer who’s experienced in defending drug charges can look at the facts of your case and give you specialized legal advice. They can navigate the criminal justice system and handle any negotiations with the prosecution.

Many criminal defense attorneys give free initial consultations to learn about your case. Here are some questions to get the ball rolling:

  • What are the potential consequences of the federal drug crime I’ve been charged with?
  • Can I avoid a criminal record for a federal drug crime?
  • What is the difference between a federal and state drug crime?
  • Can I get my charges dismissed or reduced?

Consider visiting the Super Lawyers directory and search for a drug & alcohol violations attorney in or around your local area.

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