Drug charges cover a broad range of offenses, from the less severe, like simple possession of a small amount of certain drugs, to the more serious, such as participation in an ongoing drug-related criminal enterprise or manufacturing and distributing drugs. Even minor charges can be terrifying, however, and carry the risk of serious penalties upon conviction; the more serious charges, of course, can give rise to even graver consequences. An experienced criminal defense attorney can take some of the terror out of drug charges by answering questions and guiding an accused offender through the complex legal maze that awaits.

Federal and State Drug Laws
Although in earlier times drugs were an accepted part of many religious rituals and were lauded for their medicinal effects, society’s view of drug use changed and the first narcotics laws began to appear in the early 1900s. In 1970, the federal government passed the Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which codified federal drug law into a uniform system. The Act classifies drugs into five categories, listed in schedules, and establishes regulatory requirements and penalties for the misuse of the drugs on each schedule. The Act also allows the United States Attorney General to add drugs to the schedules as necessary. Most states have drug laws that mirror the federal act, but the penalties may be less harsh and more flexible under state sentencing schemes than under the federal sentencing guidelines. A conviction of simple possession, for example, may receive a sentence under state law of drug treatment rather than jail time, and probation may be available to first-time offenders for even the more serious crimes.

The most severe legal restrictions and penalties involve Schedule I and II drugs as set forth in the federal law. Schedule I drugs are those with a high potential for abuse, with an absence of any medical use, and that is dangerous to the user even under medical supervision. The most well known of these drugs are heroin, LSD, mescaline, marijuana, and peyote. Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse and a high potential for severe psychological or physical dependency, but a currently accepted medical use. Schedule II drugs include opium, cocaine, methadone, amphetamines, and methamphetamines. Schedule III drugs, by comparison, have less potential for abuse than Schedule II drugs, a potential for moderate psychological or physical dependency, and an accepted medical use. The most well known Schedule III drug is naline, which is used to detect narcotic use. Schedule IV drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule III drugs, they have a limited potential for dependency, and they are accepted in medical treatment. These drugs include tranquilizers, meprobamate, chloral hydrate, most drugs that cause sleep, and sedatives. Schedule V drugs, which have a low potential for abuse, a limited risk for dependency, and accepted medical uses, include drugs with small amounts of codeine or other narcotics in them.

Drug-Related Crimes and Penalties
The federal sentencing guidelines begin with forty-three base offense levels for drug charges and add or subtract a few levels depending on certain specified criteria. The higher the offense level, the harsher the sentence. The base offense level under the federal guidelines differs for different drugs and for different amounts of the same drug. For instance, if the conviction is for the crime of manufacturing 300 kilograms of heroin, the base offense level is forty-two. If the conviction is for manufacturing 300 kilograms of cocaine, the base offense level is thirty-eight. Crack is a form of cocaine and is listed on the same schedule of controlled substances, but the quantity of crack needed to impose a certain sentence is much less than the quantity of powdered cocaine. A person convicted of the crime of delivering five grams of crack will receive a sentence in the federal system of five to forty years, for example, whereas to receive that same sentence on a cocaine charge, a person would have to be convicted of delivering 500 grams of powdered cocaine. It is essential for an accused to be represented by attorneys who have experience navigating these sentencing issues.

The crime of “simple possession” requires that the offender knowingly and intentionally possesses a scheduled drug without a valid prescription. The government must prove that the offender knew the drug was a controlled substance and that he or she had either actual possession of it or other control over it, either alone or with another. The federal sentencing guidelines provide for a maximum of one year in prison for a first offender, a maximum of two years in prison for a second offender, and a maximum of three years in prison for a third or higher offender. The sentence for possession of more than five grams of crack cocaine, however, is increased to a minimum of five years in prison, even for first-time offenders.

Manufacturing, delivering, or possessing with intent to deliver a controlled substance is a crime with escalating penalties depending on the drug involved, the quantity of the drug, and the offender’s prior record. For example, a first offender convicted of possessing with intent to deliver 100 grams to five kilograms of heroin will receive a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison, but possibly as many as forty years. Three crimes-distributing controlled substances to persons under twenty-one years of age, distributing controlled substances near a school and causing persons under age eighteen to violate drug laws-are penalty-enhancement crimes for which the sentence is double or triple what it would otherwise be for distributing that particular amount and type of drug under other circumstances.

The offense of “continuing criminal enterprise” is charged when the defendant commits a felony drug violation as part of a continuing enterprise or scheme with five or more individuals, and from which substantial income is derived. The penalty is twenty years to life in prison, or even the death penalty if the offender intentionally kills another in the course of the enterprise.

Drug crimes carry harsh penalties, particularly under the federal law. If you have been charged with a drug-related crime, you could be facing time in prison-a frightening thought for most people. If your future is on the line because of a drug charge, do not hesitate to call an experienced criminal defense attorney, who will put his or her skill and knowledge to work for you at once.