A federal drug charge is a narcotic-related criminal act deemed illegal by the federal government.
While many federal drug crimes are also state crimes, some acts are considered criminal only at the federal level (for instance, marijuana is now legal in Colorado but still deemed illegal by the U.S. government). Federal crimes are prosecuted in federal courts and involve sentences in federal prisons.
Examples of Federal Drug Charges
The number of federal crimes has long believed to be virtually uncountable. However, rough estimates predict that there are around 3,000 federal crimes on the books. Many of these crimes involve drugs. What dictates a federal drug crime from a state drug crime can vary. Technically, anyone who ends up getting arrested for a drug offense can be considered in violation of a federal law, but most people are only prosecuted on a federal level if:
- They are caught selling or manufacturing drugs
- They are caught by a federal officer or on federal property (such as caught by the DEA or caught at a national monument)
- They are caught by the help of an informant
- There is a decision or agreement made between the state prosecutors and federal prosecutors
Some of the examples of federal drug charges include:
- Possession (possessing any amount is illegal but the penalties are higher for higher amounts).
- Drug manufacturing.
- Drug selling.
- Drug possession with intent to distribute.
- Drug trafficking.
- Organized crime that involves drugs.
The above offenses apply to illegal drugs (such as heroin or cocaine) as well as legal drugs (such as Ativan or Percocet) that are used or distributed illegally.
Drug Crimes Among the Most Federal Crimes Committed
The federal crimes that are most commonly committed involve:
- Illegal immigration (such as entering the country illegally or helping someone enter illegally)
- Possession of illegal firearms
In 2012, these four categories accounted for 82.7 percent of all federal crimes reported.
Drug offenses are the second most committed federal crime, second only to immigration offenses; they typically account for 30 percent of all federal crimes (while immigration crime accounts for 32 percent). Fraud and possession of illegal firearms each account for around ten percent; other federal crimes make up the remaining offenses.
The People Who Commit Federal Crimes
According to the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC), most people who commit federal crimes (drug related or otherwise):
- Do it alone
- Are male (86.8 percent were male in 2012)
- Have an average age of 36 years old
The Sentencing Guidelines for Federal Drug Crimes
There are certain factors that dictate the sentencing guidelines for federal drug crimes. A table created by the United States Sentencing Commission weighs the criminal history of the defendant against the nature of the offense. It then places criminals in the following sentencing zones:
- Zone A: Sentences range from 0 months to six months.
- Zone B: Sentences range from 1 month to 15 months.
- Zone C: Sentences range from 10 months to 18 months.
- Zone D: Sentences range from 15 months to life imprisonment.
There are 43 levels of offenses. The seriousness of the offense results in a higher level (and placement in a lower sentencing zone). To help this process, each crime is assigned a base offense level. The manual for sentencing guidelines contains the base offense level for hundreds, if not thousands, of drug crimes.
Some examples include:
- Unlawful manufacturing, importing, exporting, trafficking, or possession with intent to engage in conspiracy: base offense levels of 21, 26, 30, 38, or 43.
- Possession of 30 kg or more of heroin or 150 kg or more of cocaine: base offense level 38.
- Possession of less than 250 grams of marijuana, less than 50 grams of hash, or less than 250 of ketamine: base offense level 6.
- Possession of between 40 grams and 160 grams of Fentanyl: base offense level 26.
- Selling 70 grams or more of substances containing PCP: base offense level 22.
- Selling 250 milligrams or more of substances containing LSD: base offense level 18.
The varying levels in regards to unlawful manufacturing (and the like) are due to several mitigating factors. If a drug crime results in the bodily injury or death of another, for instance, the base offense level will be higher than a drug crime that doesn’t directly harm someone.
Base offense levels can also be increased or decreased by prosecutors. If someone is caught selling PCP and violence is involved, the crime will usually have a level that is increased by two, to 24. People who are found to be minimally involved in a drug crime will usually find their level decreases by two.
Once the base offense level is determined, the criminal history of the defendant is taken into consideration and a sentencing zone is determined.