There are many differences between state and federal sentencing guidelines for drug crimes. These include the length of time that you can receive, the amount of criminal fines you may need to pay, and whether you can propose an alternative sentencing solution rather than having to serve a full prison sentence.

Another difference between state and federal sentencing guidelines for drug crimes is that federal drug convictions are typically associated with charges related to drug trafficking, whereas state and local drug convictions are more likely to be based on drug possession, usage, and/or small-scale distribution charges.

Additionally, the legal consequences that stem from federal drug convictions tend to be harsher, meaning they will usually involve longer prison sentences and larger criminal fines. On the other hand, the legal consequences for state drug convictions may vary depending on the type of drug crime committed.

For instance, in many states, being charged with simple possession and without the intent to distribute, is normally charged as a misdemeanor offense. This means that a conviction on such charges will likely result in a lesser criminal fine, probation, and/or a short jail sentence.

State sentencing guidelines also tend to factor in the age and criminal record of each defendant. While federal law may do so as well, this usually will not have as much of an effect on the defendant’s criminal sentence since being charged with a federal drug crime means there is at least a mandatory minimum sentence.

Important Terminology for Drug Crimes in State and Federal Law

The following sections provide the definitions of some important terminology for drug crimes under both state and federal laws. These terms can be useful to know when trying to make sense of a specific criminal drug charge since the type of drug crime that a defendant is charged and convicted with will likely affect the kind of sentence they receive in criminal court.

For example, if a defendant is charged with the crime of “use” or “drug use,” they can face criminal penalties if the drug is considered to be illegal under state or federal law, or if they are not legally authorized (e.g., have a legal prescription) to use the drug. However, the crime of drug use is a less serious criminal offense when compared to that of drug trafficking or drug manufacturing.

What is a Controlled Substance?

According to U.S. federal law, a “controlled substance” is defined as a drug or other substance that is classified and regulated by the government due to its effects or because of its illicit nature. Certain chemicals may also be classified as a controlled substance if they can be used to make other illegal drugs or prescription medications.

Both federal and state laws separate controlled substances into different categories called, “schedules.” Both illegal drugs as well as legally prescribed medications can be found under these schedules.

What Does “Distribution” Mean?

“Drug distribution,” or simply “distribution,” refers to the act of transferring, selling, delivering, or importing illegal drugs and/or controlled substances. Although a person can be charged with the crime of “intent to distribute” if they are found in possession of a large sum of money or drugs, drug distribution usually involves the movement of drugs.

This is in contrast to the crime of drug trafficking, which is more concerned with the quantity or amount of drugs, rather than whether the drugs were “moved” or transported.

What is Trafficking?

The crime of “trafficking”, or more specifically, “drug trafficking,” is defined as the criminal act of selling and/or distributing illegal drugs or controlled substances. The term is often confused with “drug distribution,” but there is a clear distinction that separates these charges.

The two major differences between drug trafficking and drug distribution are that drug trafficking will apply when the quantity of drugs exceeds a certain weight limit, and the penalties associated with drug trafficking charges are generally more severe than those issued for drug distribution.

What Does It Mean to Manufacture?

The term “manufacture” refers to any type of drug charges that involve activities related to possessing, growing, mixing, or producing chemicals to make (i.e., “manufacture”) illegal drugs or controlled substances.

Some examples include “cooking” various ingredients together to produce methamphetamine or cultivating marijuana plants for the purposes of large scale distribution. Also, while growing marijuana may no longer be illegal in some states, a person can still be charged with a crime if they do not possess the proper license to grow marijuana or if they are raising more crops than what is permitted by the laws in their particular state.

What is Possession?

The crime of “possession” or “drug possession” is one of the most common drug crimes for which a defendant can be charged. It essentially means that the defendant was found in possession of a controlled or illegal substance. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the defendant was physically holding the drug or even that it was found on their person in order for them to be arrested and charged with the crime of possession.

This is because possession may also refer to the crime of “constructive possession.” Unlike standard possession charges, constructive possession does not mean that the drug was on the defendant’s body or within their control. Instead, a defendant is said to be in constructive possession of an illegal drug or a controlled sentence when the following factors are present:

  • The defendant has the ability to maintain dominance and control over the drug or the area in which the drugs are discovered; and
  • The defendant has knowledge of where the drugs are located (e.g., near or on the property).

For example, if a defendant held the key to a particular locker and law enforcement found drugs in that locker, then the defendant would be considered to be in constructive possession of the drugs found in the locker.

Additionally, being in physical possession of a controlled substance or an illegal drug will provide grounds for charging the defendant with this crime. In other words, the prosecution will not have to prove that the defendant is actually using the drug to charge them with possession. It just needs to be found within their control or on their person.

Finally, being found in possession of drug paraphernalia like crack pipes or heroin needles is also illegal. Drug paraphernalia is a broad term that can be applied to a wide range of objects that assist an individual in making, taking, hiding, or transporting illegal drugs and controlled substances. However, while crack pipes and heroin needles are explicitly illegal under federal law, not all drug paraphernalia is illegal.

Therefore, whether a person can be charged with a crime for being in possession of certain drug paraphernalia may depend on both state and federal law, as well as on the type of drug paraphernalia that the person is in possession of and how that equipment or product is being used.

How are Drug Sentences Determined?

Although both state and federal laws provide guidelines for minimum and maximum drug sentences, drug sentences are more likely to be found under federal law. In general, federal laws typically set mandatory minimum sentences based on a number of different factors, such as:

  • Whether the defendant is a first-time or repeat offender;
  • The class of drug or controlled substance (also known as a “schedule”);
  • The quantity of drug associated with the charges; and/or
  • The specific drug crime for which the defendant is being charged.

A prosecutor will then calculate the above factors and find the corresponding minimum drug sentence. Once the mandatory minimum sentence is determined, the parties will know the absolute lowest form of punishment the defendant can receive for the drug crime if they are convicted. The prosecutor, however, can recommend a longer sentence to the judge.

In contrast, a prosecutor cannot recommend a lesser sentence to the judge if federal law already provides a mandatory minimum sentence. The judge also will not have discretion to reduce a defendant’s sentence or issue a punishment that is lower than what is mandated by federal law.

As an example, the current federal drug sentencing guidelines mandate a minimum sentence of five years’ imprisonment for a drug crime that involves five grams of crack cocaine or methamphetamine, and a minimum sentence of ten years’ imprisonment for a drug crime that involves fifty grams of those same drugs.

Therefore, if a defendant is charged and convicted of possession of five grams of methamphetamine, then the bare minimum sentence they can receive is five years in a federal prison.

Do States Have Mandatory Minimum Sentences For Drug Crimes?

Some states do provide mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug crimes. Similar to federal drug sentencing guidelines, a state may implement a mandatory minimum sentence for a drug crime based on the following factors:

  • The type of drug found;
  • The quantity of the drug that was found; and/or
  • Whether the defendant was a first-time or repeat offender.

In addition, some states have adopted rehabilitative programs that permit judges to issue alternative sentences, as opposed to sentencing a defendant to some period of jail or prison time.

Alternative sentencing methods are often reserved for defendants who are first-time offenders and for less serious drug crimes. Thus, instead of spending time in prison or jail, a defendant can start receiving drug treatment and counseling, which can help to prevent them from committing another drug crime again in the future.

Should I Talk To a Lawyer If I Have Been Charged with a Drug Crime?

Criminal drug charges should be taken very seriously since a conviction can result in criminal penalties, such as having to serve a prison sentence or receiving an entry on your permanent record. Therefore, if you are facing charges for a drug-related crime, then it is strongly recommended that you contact a local drug lawyer immediately for further assistance.

A lawyer who has extensive experience in handling cases involving federal and/or state criminal drug charges will be able to assist you in navigating the various laws and requirements of the U.S. legal system. Your lawyer can also help you build and present a strong legal defense against the charges.

Additionally, your lawyer can provide legal representation in criminal court or can negotiate on your behalf at a conference to discuss a plea deal. Also, if you are a first-time offender or if your lawyer believes there are other grounds to propose a reduced or alternative sentence, your lawyer will be able to assist you in petitioning the court for any of these outcomes as well.