State and federal laws classify drugs according to five categories called “Schedules” (Schedule I through V). The drugs located in each category are based on the potential of abuse and dependency on the drug compared to their therapeutic or medical value.
For example, the drugs enumerated under Schedule I have a high potential for abuse, are not presently accepted as medical treatment, and have little to no medical value. Drug crimes involving Schedule I drugs usually receive the most severe legal punishments.
On the other end of the scale are Schedule V drugs. Schedule V drugs have a lower potential for abuse or dependency, and some even have acceptable medical uses. Drug crimes concerning Schedule V drugs usually receive somewhat more minor penalties.
Most state drug schedules are based on federal drug schedules. In addition to federal drug crime laws, every state has its own laws against the illegal possession, use, distribution, or manufacturing of illicit drugs.
Common examples of illegal drugs include heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, ecstasy, certain prescription drugs, drug paraphernalia (e.g., bongs or syringes), and other controlled substances.
What Are the General Punishments for Drug Crimes?
Many drug crimes are deemed to be felonies. The lowest sentences for first-time drug crime offenders can range from one to ten years in a prison facility. Punishment for drug offenses may also include fines running from five hundred to several thousand dollars. Repeat lawbreakers are generally sentenced to a minimum of 3 to 15 years in prison.
Drug laws may differ widely by state and some even by local municipalities. The legal punishments for drug crimes typically depend on several factors, such as:
- The quantity or dose of a drug;
- The category of the drug (i.e., according to the schedules); and
- The purpose of the drug possession (e.g., personal or recreational use versus distribution).
The most severe drug crimes include producing, selling, and manufacturing illegal drugs. The goal of distributing drugs can lead to much more severe charges for possession.
For instance, a prosecutor can establish a defendant’s intent to distribute drugs simply by demonstrating that they have possession over a particular amount of the drug. This often does not require evidence that the defendant distributed the substance. The quantity alone might be enough.
Therefore, possession of many drugs (including a stash solely for personal consumption) can result in severe felony charges.
In distinction, possession of specific drugs, such as a tiny amount of marijuana, may be treated as a misdemeanor or traffic violation in some states. These charges can result in probation or a fine with little to no jail time.
What Are Enhanced Penalties for Drug Crimes?
Some states have enacted enhanced punishments or penalties for drug crimes. A penalty enhancement may result in more extreme criminal charges and liabilities, such as upgrading a misdemeanor to a felony charge.
Enhanced criminal punishments may apply to a drug crime if:
- The drugs were disseminated or sold to minors;
- Minors were used to disperse the substances; or
- The drugs were sold or supplied near a school zone or another similarly shielded area (e.g., a school bus stop, public library, or community center).
Punishment enhancements may vary by state and include other aspects aside from those mentioned above. Further enhancements may permit alternative sentencing measures, including rehabilitation programs or mandatory community service.
Furthermore, individuals convicted of a drug crime may be instructed to relinquish their property. For example, suppose a defendant’s house was used to manufacture or disseminate the drugs. In that case, a judge may require the house to be seized.
Additionally, a person convicted of a severe drug crime may encounter far-reaching consequences that can impact their entire life, such as losing custody of a child, their job or license (e.g., CPA, teacher, doctor), and the ability to travel freely.
Federal and State Drug Possession Penalties
Federal lawmakers legislated mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drug offenses in 1986 in an endeavor to target high-level distributors. However, they also affect lower-level drug defendants. Most states have embraced a comparable approach to drug sentencing. These specified sentences are founded on the type of drug, the weight of the drug, and the number of prior convictions.
For instance, Kentucky has embraced similar mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and has some of the toughest provisions. For simple possession, first offenders get 2 to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $20,000. In contrast, California has some of the weakest drug possession sentences: between $30 and $500 in fines or 15 to 180 days in jail.
What Are Special Drug Courts?
Many states have instituted drug court programs for felony drug defendants headed by a judge to rehabilitate the defendant (often repeat offenders) instead of taking the case to trial. Magistrates have significant power over the operation of drug courts.
A drug defendant who consents to drug court spends roughly 12 to 15 months heeding treatment sessions and experiencing random drug tests while regularly emerging before the drug court judge. Those who fail to appear in court or fail drug tests are arrested and usually given a short jail sentence.
What Other Factors Influence Drug Possession Penalties?
In addition to mandatory minimum sentences, other elements can determine drug possession punishments and sentencing. When fashioning a sentence, courts can look to exacerbating or mitigating elements in any given case, such as a defendant’s past record and the dose and kind of drug involved.
For example, many states double the punishments for drug convictions if the incident (possession, sale, etc.) happened within 1,000 feet of a school; this would be an aggravating factor. Alternatively, an individual helping a drug distribution operation run by an abusive partner may obtain a lesser drug charge. The power dynamic connected to the abuse would offer a mitigating factor.
State Marijuana Laws
Marijuana possession regulations have experienced massive transformations, with many states legalizing marijuana or substantially decriminalizing possession. In the states that have legalized marijuana, there are still limitations. There is no punishment if you have under a specific quantity, normally 1 ounce.
Nevertheless, amounts over 1 ounce are subject to increased penalties and fines depending on the amount. For example, in Colorado, over 2 ounces are subject to misdemeanor charges, and amounts over 12 ounces are subject to a felony.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance with General and Enhanced Drug Crime Punishments?
If you are facing charges for a drug crime, you should contact a drug lawyer immediately. You have the right to an attorney once charges have been filed against you. As such, you should take advantage of it because a criminal defense attorney can help get your charges reduced or offer an alternative sentencing measure instead of prison.
An experienced lawyer may be vital to your case, especially if you are a repeat offender. A lawyer can predict the possible penalties that apply to your matter, determine whether enhancement statutes apply, and assess whether drug crime defenses are available to you.
Additionally, suppose enhanced penalties do apply to your case. In that case, an attorney will be able to help guide you through the process. Use LegalMatch to find a lawyer who will help you with your legal needs today.