Illicit drugs are substances that have been declared illegal to manufacture, possess, use, or distribute without authorization. Illicit drugs are subject to intensive control and monitoring by the federal and state governments to ensure that the public is protected from the dangers of these drugs and the dangers inherent in the black market efforts to manufacture, transport, smuggle, and sell them.
Government restriction of illicit drugs is also intended to be a method to help curb the nation’s widespread addiction to them. As of 2023, 37.3 million people 12 years old and above are believed to be currently addicted to drugs.
Most jurisdictions categorize illicit drugs into categories or schedules, including:
- Narcotics: Narcotics are addictive drugs used to relieve or control pain. They can also help induce sleep. Examples of narcotics include morphine, codeine, heroin, oxycodone, oxycontin, Vicodin, fentanyl, opium, opium derivatives, and their semi-synthetic substitutes.
- Stimulants: Stimulants are drugs that activate or excite the nervous system and generally help the user have more energy. Stimulants are also highly addictive. Examples of stimulants include cocaine, crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and other amphetamines. Caffeine is also a stimulant.
- Depressants: Depressants are substances intended to reduce tension and anxiety. Common examples are barbiturates, benzodiazepines, GHB, and Rohypnol,
- Hallucinogens: By producing altered states of mind and awareness, hallucinogens change how a person perceives reality. Examples include LSD, peyote, psilocybin, ketamine, PCP, DMT, and mescaline.
- Cannabis: The cannabis category or schedule refers to substances taken directly from, or created from, the hemp plant. Examples include marijuana, hashish, and synthetic marijuana variants.
Importantly, the difference between a legal drug and an illegal drug often comes down to how it is used and by whom it is used. For example, some states have legalized the use of medicinal marijuana but have not legalized it for recreational use.
Morphine is used quite legally by those to whom it is prescribed, but morphine and its derivatives are illegal in the hands of people who do not have a prescription, especially those who intend to sell it on the black market.
What Are Illicit Drug Crimes?
Drug crimes are exactly what their title implies: offenses related to illicit drugs. Drug crimes violate state or federal drug laws, including four basic types: possession, manufacturing, use, and distribution.
- Drug Possession: This is the most common drug charge. Of the estimated 1.5 million arrests for drug law violations in the United States in 2020, 86.7% were for possession of a controlled substance. Only 13.3% were for the sale or manufacture of a drug. Drug possession requires that the individual knowingly and intentionally possess a scheduled drug without a valid prescription, in an amount expected to be only for personal use.
- Drug Use: This simply means consuming or taking a scheduled drug if there is no prescription from a doctor directing a person to consume or take the drug or a drug that is illegal for anyone to possess or sell.
- Manufacturing: Manufacturing consists of producing an illegal substance using chemicals, synthesizing it, or extracting it from a natural source. Manufacturing drugs can also include packaging, re-packaging, labeling, and re-labeling the drug. Anyone who is found to be involved in the manufacturing process might be charged with drug conspiracy even if they were not physically manufacturing the drugs.
- Distribution: This includes the sale or delivery of an illegal substance. It includes both actually transferring a drug and “constructive” distribution. “Constructive” distribution is an act or scenario where it is reasonable to assume, based on the quantity of the drug that is involved, that it is intended that the drug would be sold.
- “Distribution” also includes drug smuggling, transporting drugs from one area to another for distribution, possession, use, or sale. This can be inter-country, inter-region, or inter-state transportation. Drug smuggling and drug trafficking are the same thing. Distribution can carry the harshest penalties out of all the drug crimes because it involves enabling the drug use of others and perpetuating drug problems plaguing society.
What are Some Defenses to Drug Crimes?
The most common defenses to drug crimes are:
- Unwitting possession.
- Illegal search and seizure.
- Police abuse of power.
- Medical marijuana (legal use).
Unwitting possession refers to a person possessing a drug with no knowledge of doing so. A common example is a person borrowing a car from someone who left drugs in the car. Some states allow unwitting possession as a defense. Others require that the defendant also show that they “had no reason to know” about the drugs. On the other hand, some states do not allow for an unwitting possession defense at all.
Illegal search and seizure is a valid defense when the police illegally obtained the evidence. This can include searching a home without a warrant or a car without probable cause. Evidence that was illegally obtained may be suppressed in court. Without that evidence (usually the drugs themselves), the prosecution typically cannot move forward since they no longer have any drugs to connect to the defendant.
Police abuse of power is similar and includes a variety of illegal methods used by law enforcement to prove a case. The most common examples include unauthorized surveillance, planting evidence, and using pressure tactics on witnesses or suspects. However, it is important to note that the police can lie when promising leniency or using undercover agents.
A medical marijuana prescription can also be used as a defense, depending on the jurisdiction the defendant is in. If the defendant is brought before a federal court or a court in a state that does not recognize medical marijuana, no defense is available. Additionally, several restrictions exist even in states that allow for medical marijuana possession.
Some of these include:
- States limit how much marijuana patients may possess at one time. Marijuana possession over the limit is not protected
- Most states require that patients register with a state medical marijuana program or hold a specific doctor’s note in order to establish that they have a legal right to be in possession
Do I Need an Attorney If I Am Charged with a Drug Crime?
Consequences for drug crimes can include significant fines, imprisonment, probation or parole, loss of child custody, and deportation. Therefore, it is best to consult with a well-qualified and knowledgeable drug lawyer if facing federal or state drug crime charges.
An experienced local drug lawyer will know how your state defines drug crimes and which defenses work in that state. In addition, a local drug lawyer can provide social support, as they will know about available treatment options in your area and whether entering or completing such a program will help your legal case.
Contact a drug lawyer today to discuss your case and explore your options for moving forward. With the right legal and social support and your commitment to treatment and recovery, obtaining a good result against drug charges and overcoming your underlying addiction are possible.