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Federal Prison Sentences for Drug Crimes

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Is There a Minimum Sentence for Drug Crimes?

Yes. Under federal law, anyone convicted of a drug crime will face at least a mandatory minimum prison sentence. This sentence is referred to as a "mandatory minimum" and has been the center of many controversies.

What Are the Mandatory Minimums for Various Drugs?

It will depend on two things: the type activity and the weight of the drug. The type of activity can be broken down into possession or trafficking. The two overlap, but a distinction is important where one possesses a drug for personal use versus with the intent to distribute. Below is a basic outline of federal sentences based on those two types of activities.

1) Possession

 Possession means a person has the drug on them, has physical control over the drug, or has the knowledge of and ability to control the drug. As of 2011, simple possession carries the following penalties:

1st offense

  • Up to 1 year
  • At least $1,000

2nd offense

  • 15 days to 2 years
  • At least $2,500

3rd offense

  • 90 days to 3 years
  • At least $5,000

2) Trafficking

Trafficking means manufacture, distribution and sale of an illegal drug.

Cocaine

  • 5 kilograms or more: 10 years to life and $10-50 million
  • 500 to 4,999 grams: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
  • Less than 500 grams: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million

Crack

  • 280 grams or more: 10 years to life and $10-50 million
  • 28 to 279 grams: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
  • Less than 28 grams: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million

Heroin

  • 5 kilograms or more: 10 years to life and $10-50 million
  • 500 to 4,999 grams: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
  • Less than 500 grams: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million

LSD

  • 10 grams or more: 10 years to life and $10-50 million
  • 1 to 9 grams: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
  • Less than 1 gram: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million

Marijuana

  • 1000 kilograms or more or 1000 or more plants: 10 years to life and $10-50 million fine
  • 100 to 999 kilograms or 100 to 999 plants: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
  • 50 to 99 kilograms or 50 to 99 plants: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million
  • Under 50 kilograms4, 10 kilograms of hashish, 1 kilogram of hashish oil, or 1 to 49 plants: Up to 5 years and $250,000-$1 million

Methamphetamine

  • 50 grams or more, or 500 grams or more of a mixture: 10 years to life and $10-50 million fine
  • 5 to 49 grams, or 50 to 499 grams of a mixture: 5 to 40 years and $5-25 million
  • Less than 5 grams, or less than 50 grams of a mixture: Up to 20 years and $1-5 million

Are There Problems with Mandatory Minimums?

These mandatory sentencing schemes have produced several unintended consequences. For example, until 2010, crack was punished at a rate of 100 times more severely by weight than cocaine. This had a markedly discriminatory impact on disenfranchised minorities.

Another example is how LSD is weighed. According to the statute, the weight is determined by mixture. Generally, LSD, a liquid, is added to a small piece of paper or a sugar cube to be ingested. This means that the weight of the paper or sugar would be counted as "mixture." However, a glass vial containing the substance would not. This resulted in someone who may have 1 hit of LSD on a sugar cube receiving a higher prison sentence than someone with 1 hit on a piece of paper, even if it is the same amount of active substance.

Even more unbelievably, someone who had 100 hits of acid in a glass vial could ostensibly receive a less severe sentence than the same people with 1 hit on a sugar cube or piece of paper.

Should I Seek Legal Advice?

Federal mandatory minimum laws are incredibly serious, yet facing increased scrutiny. If you may be prosecuted under a federal drug statute, seeking the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney is the best way to ensure your rights and freedom are protected.

Photo of page author Matthew Izzi

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 04-06-2016 08:04 AM PDT

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