There are several differences between state and federal drug laws. While many federal drug convictions may be based on trafficking offenses, state and local convictions are more likely to be based on possession offenses.

The consequences for federal crimes tend to be harsher, with longer sentences and larger fines. State consequences, however, can vary depending on the crime charged. Simple possession without the intent to distribute is generally considered a misdemeanor, and punishments can involve probation, a short period in jail, or a fine. State sentences largely depend on the criminal history and age of the defendant in the case.

Important Terminology for Drug Crimes in State and Federal Law

In order to better understand the drug crimes that can be pursued by state and federal prosecutors, it is helpful to understand some of the terminology. These terms are often used in pursuing convictions for drug crimes, and may have an effect on what level of offense is charged.

What is a Controlled Substance?

A charge involving a controlled substance often involves the use and/or distribution of a substance that is controlled by law. Generally these substances are classified at different levels (called “schedules”) under federal and state laws.

Often controlled substances can be either legal or illegal drugs. Prescription drugs can be controlled substances, and if they are sold or given without going through the proper channels, even prescription drugs can result in a criminal charge.

What Does “Distribution” Mean?

A charge of distribution of a controlled substance means that a defendant has been accused of illegally selling, delivering, or providing a controlled substance.

What is Trafficking?

Drug trafficking usually involves the illegal sale or distribution of a controlled substance. The man difference between distribution and trafficking is the amount of drugs involved. Small amounts of drugs can result in distribution charges, while large amounts are more likely to result in drug trafficking charges.

What Does It Mean to Manufacture?

Manufacturing charges are, for the most part, exactly what they sound like. Actions related to growing, possessing, or producing elements in order to make illegal or controlled substances can result in charges of drug manufacturing.

Some examples include possessing marijuana plant seeds or growing marijuana plants (in states where marijuana is still an illegal substance), or cooking chemicals to create methamphetamine.

What is Possession?

This is the most common drug charge, which basically involves the possession of a controlled substance. The tricky thing about possession is that the drug does not even need to be found on your person to result in criminal charges.

Constructive possession is the concept that even if the drug is not on your person (say, for example, it is not found in your pocket), you can still be charged with possession of a controlled substance if you have access to and control over the location the drugs were found. An example of constructive possession would be if the substance was found in a locker that you have the key to.

Another element of possession is that the mere possession of the substance is enough—the prosecution does not have to prove that you are actually using a controlled substance in order to charge you with possession.

Possession of drug paraphernalia is also illegal. Possession of items such as syringes, cocaine or marijuana pipes, scales, and other drug-related items can be enough to charge you with a misdemeanor or felony, depending you where you live. You do not have to be found in possession of a controlled substance to face criminal charges if you have drug paraphernalia in your possession.

How are Drug Sentences Determined?

When it comes to sentencing for drug crimes, federal laws have mandatory minimum sentences. These mandatory minimum sentences provide the absolute least punishment that a person can get for a drug conviction. When deciding on a sentence, there are several factors that a judge must consider:

  • Prior convictions;
  • Type of drug (what “schedule” of controlled substance);
  • Type of charge (whether possession, trafficking, manufacturing); and/or
  • Amount of the drug found.

Unfortunately, there are no factors to consider to decrease a sentence, and the mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines mean that a judge has no leeway to give a lighter sentence than the mandatory minimum.

Federal laws require a minimum sentence of 5 years for drug offenses that involve 5 grams of crack cocaine or methamphetamine, and a minimum of 10 years for 50 grams of the same drugs. If you are charged under federal law, federal drug laws can carry very long maximum sentences, including decades in prison.

Do States Have Mandatory Minimum Sentences For Drug Crimes?

Yes, some states have mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Often, like in federal court, sentences can be based on the amount and type of drug found, and any prior convictions the defendant may have.

Some states have programs that allow judges to place importance on rehabilitation rather than mandating prison or jail time. Depending on where you live, there may be programs in your state court system that focus on rehabilitation for first-time offenders, where defendants can receive drug treatment and counselling rather than spending time in prison.

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

If you are facing charges for drug offenses, you should talk to a criminal defense attorney. An experienced attorney who knows the law of your state or has experience dealing with federal drug charges can help you navigate the nuances of the legal system and help you present the best defense to the charges.

An attorney can also help you manage the sentencing procedure to help you get the best possible outcome for your case.