Drug Crimes: Overview

If you are under investigation for a drug crime, or believe you may be under investigation by the DEA or FBI, talk with a lawyer immediately. Early intervention by an experienced lawyer may deter prosecutors from pressing criminal charges.

Federal and State Drug Laws

Drug crimes involve violations of federal or state law, or both. These crimes cover a broad range of offenses involving controlled substances, including possession, sale, manufacture, distribution and trafficking, as well as prescription fraud and forgery. Drug crimes also include attempts and conspiracies to commit any of these acts. At the federal level, participation in a continuing criminal enterprise also exposes an individual to criminal liability. These crimes are very specifically defined, and the government is required to prove a specific set of facts before an accused person can be found guilty of any of them.

Drug cases frequently involve the question of whether the evidence was properly obtained by law enforcement. Evidence obtained in violation of an accused’s constitutional rights is not admissible in court. Most challenges to the admissibility of evidence are based in the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.

The Federal Controlled Substances Act

The federal government has exercised control over the importation and manufacture of drugs since the mid-1800s. In 1970, Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, also known as the Controlled Substances Act. This Act established regulatory requirements, enforcement mechanisms and penalties for the unauthorized manufacture, distribution or possession of controlled substances.

The Act took the place of numerous existing drug laws and classified controlled substances into five categories (Schedules I to V), based on their abuse and addiction potential compared to their therapeutic value.

  • Schedule I drugs have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, and include heroin, LSD and marijuana.
  • Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse and severe dependence, but have a currently accepted medical use. Schedule II drugs include PCP, cocaine, methadone, and methamphetamine.
  • Schedule III drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule II drugs, a potential for moderate dependency and an accepted medical use. Anabolic steroids and codeine fall into this category.
  • Schedule IV drugs have less potential for abuse than Schedule III drugs, a limited potential for dependency, and are accepted in medical treatment. Schedule IV drugs include Valium, Xanax and other tranquilizers and sedatives.
  • Schedule V drugs have a low potential for abuse, limited risk for dependency and accepted medical uses. These include drugs like cough medicines with codeine.

Visit the Federal Drug Crimes Information Center.

State Drug Laws

Most states have drug laws that mirror the Controlled Substances Act. Penalties may be less harsh and more flexible under state sentencing schemes than under the federal sentencing guidelines. In state court, a conviction of simple possession may result in court-ordered drug treatment rather than jail, and probation may be available to first-time offenders even for more serious crimes. However, lesser offenses can result in severe criminal consequences depending on the particular facts of a case or a defendant’s prior criminal record.

Drug Convictions and Penalties

Depending on the particular circumstances of a case, drug offenses can result in a broad range of potential criminal and administrative consequences, including probation, prison, property forfeiture and participation in a court-ordered drug treatment program.

Under federal law, the most severe penalties involve drugs listed in Schedule I, with the least severe involving Schedule V. Though more severe charges typically result in harsher penalties, even less serious charges — such as possession of a small amount of a controlled substance — may have severe consequences, especially if prior convictions, firearms, activity near protected zones (e.g., schools and parks), or minors are involved.

Drug courts operate or are being planned in all 50 states. While they vary from state to state, these specialized courts emphasize treatment over incarceration for defendants with substance abuse issues. Compliance with the imposed terms and conditions (e.g., regular drug testing, participation in a treatment program) can result in dismissal of charges, or suspended or reduced sentences.

When incarceration is involved, however, potential penalties escalate depending on the nature and quantity of the drug at issue and the defendant’s prior criminal record. Certain offenses are grouped into classes and minimum and maximum sentences for these classes are specified according to an accused’s criminal history. Use of these sentencing guidelines in federal and state court have long been controversial; proponents maintain that guidelines ensure uniformity and fairness in punishment, while opponents argue that they fail to offer the flexibility needed to consider a defendant’s unique circumstances.

If You Have Been Charged with a Drug Crime

Drug charges can have severe consequences, including forfeiture of property and incarceration. Consulting with an experienced attorney for advice on how to proceed is essential.

If you are facing drug charges, contact the Philadelphia law office of Hope Lefeber. In a free, confidential consultation, Ms. Lefeber will discuss your case and the legal options available to you in this complex area of law.

View answers to Frequently Asked Questions about drug charges.

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