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Drug Possession, Trafficking, and Conspiracy in Federal Court: FAQ

More than a quarter (26.1%) of federal felonies and Class A misdemeanors committed in 2020 were drug-related crimes. However, despite the prevalence of these crimes, the area of federal law concerning illicit substances is commonly misunderstood. 

What is Federal Drug Scheduling?

Drug scheduling is the system that the federal government uses to categorize drugs and illicit substances, which are often referred to as controlled substances. Common substances are classified as follows: 

  • Schedule I: heroine, LSD, ecstasy, magic mushrooms, marijuana
  • Schedule II: cocaine, methamphetamine, Adderall (mixed amphetamine salts), Ritalin (methylphenidate), Vicodin (acetaminophen with hydrocodone)
  • Schedule III: ketamine, acetaminophen with codeine, testosterone, anabolic steroids 
  • Schedule IV: Xanax (alprazolam), Valium (diazepam), Ambien (zolpidem), Soma (carisoprodol), Darvocet (dextropropoxyphene)
  • Schedule V: Lomotil (diphenoxylate with atropine), Lyrica (pregabalin), Robitussin (dextromethorphan, a cough medicine)

Schedule I has the strictest regulations for research, access, and supply, while Schedule V has the least strict. Although some of the substances in the Schedule I category may seem relatively benign or harmless compared to the rest, Schedule I drugs are substances that the federal government considers to have no medical purpose, whereas the remaining categories are still used in medical contexts. The subsequent categories are ranked based on abuse potential (or how addictive they can be), with Schedule II considered to have the highest abuse potential. 

What Are Considered Federal Drug Offenses? 

Any crime that falls under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is considered a federal drug case. While the DEA is commonly associated with tackling large-scale drug trafficking rings, the following crimes may fall under the agency’s jurisdiction: 

  • Possession of a controlled substance
  • Drug trafficking or distribution
  • Drug manufacturing 
  • Drug conspiracy 

We found a great resource by Dallas Drug Defense Lawyer Mick Mickelsen 

Why Would a Drug Case Become a Federal Case Instead of a State Case? 

Drug cases often become federal cases instead of remaining state cases due to scale. Federal cases often involve large quantities of drugs being trafficked, or large groups of people involved in a drug conspiracy. Transporting or distributing drugs across state lines may also warrant the involvement of the federal government. 

What is Drug Conspiracy? 

Drug conspiracy is any agreement between two or more people to commit any drug-related crime. Defendants can be charged with drug conspiracy even if the allegedly intended drug crime was never actually carried out, or if the crime was committed but they didn’t participate in any aspect of it except discussing the crime. In drug conspiracy cases, the prosecution must prove three things for a conviction:

  1. An agreement to commit a drug-related crime occurred. 
  2. All of the defendants charged with drug conspiracy knew about the agreement.
  3. At least one action was taken towards carrying out the crime. 

How Do Penalties Differ In Federal Drug Cases Compared to State Drug Cases?

In contrast to state drug cases, drug cases held in federal court often have harsh sentencing minimums. These minimums were designed to reduce national drug possession and usage rates during an era of widespread concern about how drug use would affect the “moral fabric” of the United States. In reality, they’ve only led to doling out unnecessarily harsh punishments for minor offenses on a large scale. 

Other factors, such as a defendant’s prior criminal history, whether anyone was directly harmed by the offense, and whether a deadly weapon was used during the crime. 

How Long Do Federal Drug Cases Take? 

The duration it takes to resolve a federal drug case depends on what charges and mitigating factors are involved. An individual charged with a felony or misdemeanor can expect their case to last for a minimum of three to six months. 

What Happens During a Federal Drug Case?

The process for federal drug cases is similar to the process for most other federal crimes:

  1. The first step is a presentment hearing, which is when the defendant and the charges are presented in court.
  2. Next, dates for a detention hearing are set. At the detention hearing, the court will decide whether the defendant will be held or released for the duration of their trial. In federal court cases, if the defendant’s charges entail a minimum sentence of ten years or longer, there is something called a presumption involved. The presumption means that the court can assume a defendant is too dangerous to be released, so they will be held without bail. 
  3. The next phase is called the discovery, which is when the defense and prosecution exchange information about what witnesses they will call to testify and what information they will present in court. After this, a federal drug case proceeds like any other court case would. 


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