When are Drug Charges Federal?

federal-drug-chargesIn 1970, the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act was passed by the federal government to codify federal drug laws.  The act categorized drugs into five classifications called schedules.   The act also established regulations specific to each of the schedules and the drugs listed therein and assigned penalties for the misuse of the drugs in each schedule.  According to the Act, the United States Attorney General may add drugs to the schedules as the necessity arises.  In defining any crime as a federal offense, the defining of that crime by Congress as a federal matter comes from its constitutionally-granted powers over commerce, taxation, and the postal service.  Thus, most drug offenses fall squarely under the jurisdiction of federal law, and thus federal drug charges result from these crimes.


Most penalties for any federal conviction are generally harsher and less flexible than state penalties.  In the case of drug crimes, federal penalties are much more severe than state penalties with the most severe penalties involving Schedule I and Schedule II drug convictions. The majority of drug felonies and almost all drug misdemeanors in the United States are prosecuted at the state level. However, the federal government tends to prosecute drug trafficking cases involving large amounts of drugs, or cases, which have been referred to federal prosecutors by local district attorneys seeking harsher sentences under the federal sentencing guidelines.  In rare instances, some defendants are prosecuted both federally and by the state for the same drug trafficking offense. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that a defendant does not face double jeopardy if he is convicted of certain drug offenses and can be charged in both state and federal courts for the same act using all the prosecution powers of the two entities.

Federal drug charges encompass the possession, distribution, sale, trafficking, cultivation, and manufacturing of various controlled substances. These drugs include marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, a number of narcotic-based drugs and more.  In addition, the Drug Controlled Substances Act includes the crimes of conspiracy to promote and facilitate the manufacture drugs, distribution or importation of illicit drugs, investing illicit drug profits in businesses affecting interstate commerce, and unauthorized importation of controlled substances law and regulations into its repertoire of drug offenses.  The Drug Enforcement Administration is charged with the enforcement of federal controlled substances laws and regulations, and as a result, oftentimes, drug crimes at the federal level will include violations of tax law, such as tax evasion and the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).

Under federal law, possession of marijuana in any amount is punishable by up to one year in jail and a minimum fine of $1,000 for a first conviction.  Further convictions and greater amounts of marijuana result in much stiffer penalties.  For instance, the sale of less than 50 kilograms of marijuana (the smallest amount category) is a felony under federal law, punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Federal penalties for possession of cocaine and heroin are more severe than those for marijuana and the penalties for the sale or distribution of these drugs may include a life sentence.  Several factors are considered when an individual is charged with a drug crime such as possession and/or distribution of heroin or cocaine.  These factors include the quantity of the drug involved (the greater the quantity, the more likelihood that distribution will be imputed to the defendant), the prior criminal history of the defendant, the use or possession of weapons by the defendant, and whether minors were involved in the transaction.

Transporting controlled substances over a state line or over a country’s border is considered a federal drug trafficking crime, a federal crime with especially severe penalties attached to it. Almost all drug crimes that are tried at the federal level involve some form of drug trafficking, making the death penalty a possible federal punishment for those involved in organized illegal drug ventures.

Many federal drug crime convictions have mandatory sentences.  Judges does not have any discretion to give lighter sentences, regardless of the extenuating circumstances surrounding the crime.  Also, the federal system provides only limited opportunities for probation following a conviction on a drug crime, and there is no parole in the federal justice system.

Defenses for federal drug charges include the questioning of the admissibility and sufficiency of the government’s evidence, the accuracy of drug test results, and the legality of the search and seizure performed for a particular case.  Most attorneys defending a federal drug crime will attack law enforcement official’s procedural techniques and the possibility that those officials violated the defendant’s Constitutional rights.

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