State Drug Crimes and Penalties

And why you need a lawyer if you're facing drug charges

By Tim Kelly, J.D. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 16, 2023

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Drug laws are created and enforced at both the state and federal levels. Federal law differs from state laws in that it typically punishes larger, interstate drug trafficking operations.

States draft their own laws to punish drug offenses; so, while similar, these crimes and their resulting penalties can vary widely by state. Because of this, it’s best to contact a criminal defense attorney who has experience fighting drug charges in your local area, as they will be familiar with your jurisdiction’s laws.

This article will give you a quick overview of state versus federal drug crimes so that you have the information you need to seek legal help.

What Are Drug Crimes?

Controlled substances are drugs or chemicals that the federal and state governments have deemed to pose a risk of addiction or harm when abused or misused. The government heavily regulates the manufacture, distribution, possession, and use of these substances.

Through the Controlled Substances Act, the federal government classifies controlled substances into five “schedules” or groupings, ranked from most serious (Schedule I) to least serious (Schedule V). Heroin, ecstasy (MDMA), and LSD are all Schedule I substances. Cannabis is also a Schedule I controlled substance, though many states have either legalized or decriminalized it.

People face criminal drug charges when they are found to be in the illegal possession of a controlled substance.

Note that being regulated and being a controlled substances isn’t the same. For example, there are many regulations around alcohol in the United States—who can make it, sell it, buy it, consume it, etc.—but it isn’t a controlled substance. To be sure, there can be serious consequences from misusing alcohol, such as DUI charges if you drive under the influence. But, unlike a Schedule I substance, simply possessing or using alcohol isn’t generally a crime.

What Are the Consequences of Violating State Drug Laws?

In the United States, you can be charged for drug crimes at both the state and federal levels. This means that both the state and federal governments carry their own respective punishments for committing drug crimes.

The federal government enforces U.S. drug laws primarily through the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Whereas the DEA is concerned with punishing more sophisticated drug operations across state lines, state drug crimes tend to focus more on possession than the trafficking of large quantities.

Generally, federal charges tend to be more severe and arise when defendants are alleged to have trafficked in high quantities of illegal drugs or moved drugs across state lines.

Still, you can face serious criminal repercussions for violating drug charges at the state level.

For example, suppose you reside in a state where marijuana is still a Schedule I narcotic. You are pulled over by law enforcement for speeding five miles per hour over the speed limit in your local town. The police officer that pulls you over smells an odor of marijuana as they approach your motor vehicle. In plain view, they notice a small baggy of the substance sitting in your car’s cup holder next to a pipe. The district attorney in your county charges you with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

This is an unfortunate development, but it could be worse. Here, you weren’t crossing state lines or trafficking large quantities of drugs. As such, you won’t be charged with any federal crimes. If it’s your first offense, you’ll likely be charged with simple possession of a controlled substance, a misdemeanor. You’ll pay a small fine and be on your way. While this is one example of a lesser state crime, that does not mean that state drug charges cannot involve serious criminal penalties.

Common State Drug Crimes

There are two drug crimes that are commonly charged at the state level, along with their inherent penalties:

Possession of a Controlled Substance

Being accused of possession of drugs can be a scary, trying time.

The punishments for violating state drug laws run the gamut from fines to significant prison time, depending on the type of drug, the amount in your possession, and whether this is your first offense or if you have prior convictions.

Drug Trafficking

Drug trafficking is not limited solely to federal law. State law enforcement can use the weight of the seized drugs to say that you had the intent to distribute. Like federal law, drug trafficking tends to invoke harsher prison sentences. However, unlike federal courts, state judges have more discretion in determining penalties for drug crimes.

Keep in mind that all states have different laws and sentencing guidelines. Drug convictions are no different. For this reason, it’s essential to speak to an attorney with experience in the jurisdiction where you’ve been charged. Most attorneys hold free consultations where they will gather the necessary facts, and you can determine if they are the right fit for your legal needs.

The Best Advice: Get Legal Help Immediately

If you’re facing drug charges, the importance of seeking legal help cannot be overstated. You do not want to face the legal process alone. Without the experience and knowledge of a criminal defense lawyer, your case may end up much worse than it could have been.

There are many benefits of a solid attorney-client relationship. An experienced criminal defense lawyer versed in drug charges can look at the facts of your case and provide you with invaluable legal advice. They will know the ins and outs of the legal process, providing you essential peace of mind during a difficult time in your life.

Finding the Right Criminal Defense Attorney

You must seek the right attorney from the outset of a possession charge—someone with experienced legal know-how in defending drug charges.

Search the Super Lawyers directory for a drug & alcohol violations attorney in or around your local area.

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