Drug & Narcotics Laws, Charges & Statute of Limitations

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Federal drug charges result from violations of the federal laws pertaining to possession, manufacture, and sale of controlled substances.

Federal Drug Charges Laws

Federal and state drug laws differ markedly. State drug laws have a tendency to be relatively lenient compared to federal laws depending upon the specific activity that the alleged possessor of drugs was engaged in. Possessing a small quantity of drugs for personal use is generally charged as a misdemeanor at the state level and requires probation. On the other hand, federal charges related to drug crimes have traditionally included mandatory minimum sentences that can be quite severe.

Federal Drug Charges Crimes & Charges

Federal drug laws define a number of potential charges. The charges vary based upon the federal “schedule” on which a controlled substance is found. A controlled substance is any chemical or other substance whose use and possession is governed by law; the “schedule” defines drugs according to the expected danger that they pose to public safety. Because drug laws are so complex, it is important to review both state and federal statutes in order to fully understand the penalties that might apply in any given situation.

  • Generally speaking, “simple possession” is the least severe of all potential federal drug charges. Simple possession refers to possessing a small amount of a controlled substance for personal use. The “small amount” in question is defined by the schedule level of the drug or by other relevant state and federal statutes.
  • Distribution and trafficking, two closely related ideas, constitute a much more serious federal drug crime. Generally speaking, those who have been accused of distribution or trafficking are accused of delivering or selling controlled substances under illicit circumstances. Specific consequences depend on the amount and type of the substance, the location, and any criminal background the defendant may have.
  • Although drug trafficking is extremely serious, manufacturing of controlled substances can be the most serious federal drug charge. This includes cultivation of controlled substances like cannabis or the chemical synthesis of substances such as methamphetamines. Again, the specific type of chemical and the volume produced will have an impact on the sentence.

Federal Drug Charges Punishment

Until very recently, most federal drug crimes have included mandatory minimum prison sentences that require a number of years served. Under these conditions, many people considered to be “casual users” of drugs were sentenced to prison terms not less than three years for what federal law recognizes as simple possession. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder signaled that he will advise the Department of Justice not to pursue mandatory minimums in some possession cases. However, mandatory sentences still apply to many other federal drug charges.

Federal Drug Charges Sentencing Guidelines

Although simple drug possession may result in relatively light state sentences including fines or short prison terms, federal charges are notoriously severe. No overview can appropriately capture the full range of sentencing possibilities in a drug trafficking case. However, prosecutors and judges use such factors as criminal history, intent to sell, the specific types of drug in question, and many other issues to determine the appropriate charges and possible sentences. For drug trafficking and distribution, a sentence of three years is considered a light sentence for a relatively unsophisticated “dealer.” A lifetime sentence is possible for trafficking and manufacturing.


Federal Drug Charges Statute of Limitations

An oft-quoted federal statute, 18 USC 3282, provides a five-year window of limitation for the prosecution of noncapital federal offenses. Although some offenses are exempt, the majority may not be prosecuted 60 months after the alleged offense.

Federal Drug Cases

The federal government has been actively pursuing an aggressive strategy for drug law enforcement since the 1980s. In that time, the country has seen some of its most significant and sweeping drug cases:

  • In October 2013, federal authorities working with international counterparts were able to disrupt and shut down “Silk Road,” an online marketplace for illicit drugs believed to have been involved in more than $1.2 billion in sales of illicit drugs. (Wired UK)
  • One of the biggest “drug busts” in world history was the 1990 arrest of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega by U.S. federal authorities. The arrest of Noriega was backed by federal drug trafficking and money laundering charges and was one of the only criminal prosecutions in history to leverage military force. (The Guardian)

Quick Links & References

Drug Laws by State

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming