In 2016, the FBI estimated that there were 1.5 million people arrested for drug crimes. Many of those arrested were in federal court while some stayed at the local level. But why were some individuals treated differently than others? With so many types of drugs and penalties different in each state, how does a controlled substance offense become a federal offense?
Federal Drug Charges vs. State Drug Charges
Laws that govern controlled substances exist at both the state level and the federal level. In some instances, a defendant could be in violation of both a state and federal law. State laws refer to cases that are within the state’s limited geographical area. Federal charges apply to activities that cross state lines, occur on federal lands, or involve trafficking significant quantities of controlled substances. Since there are laws in both jurisdictions, anyone arrested for any drug offense has the possibility of being charged with a federal crime.
How a Drug Crime Becomes a Federal Charge
Federal Jurisdiction: The most common way to be charged under the federal laws is to be arrested by a federal officer. Local law enforcement may combine forces with federal law enforcement in a sting operation, or you may be arrested for possessing drugs on federal lands such as a national park. If the federal system is involved in any way, federal charges will likely result.
The Controlled Substances Act (CSA) is the federal drug policy that regulates the manufacture and distribution of controlled substances such as hallucinogens, narcotics, depressants, and stimulants. The CSA categorizes drugs into five “Schedules” or classifications that are based on their potential for abuse, status in international treaties, and any medical benefits they may provide. Schedule I drugs are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse. Schedule II controlled substances are defined as dangerous drugs with a high potential for abuse, with use potentially leading to severe psychological or physical dependence. The remaining Schedules descend from there. Examples of controlled substances in each Schedule include the following:
- Schedule I: heroin, marijuana (despite several studies done on its medical benefits), ecstasy, and LSD;
- Schedule II: methamphetamine, cocaine, morphine, oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, Dexedrine, Adderall, and Ritalin;
- Schedule III: anabolic steroids, ketamine, and Vicodin;
- Schedule IV: Ambien, Xanax, Tramadol, and Valium;
- Schedule V: Examples of Schedule V drugs include Lyrica and cough suppressants.
The Seriousness of the Offense or the Offender: Federal charges will usually result when the offense is deemed more severe or if the offender has a lengthy criminal history. Simple possession of a small amount of drugs may be kept at the state level while offenses such as drug trafficking larger quantities, manufacturing, or intent to distribute are more likely to be charged at a federal level. Where the participants have an extensive criminal network and with significant profits, federal charges are more likely. Enterprises investigated or dismantled by a federal wiretap will also prosecuted in federal court.
Informant Cooperated Against You in Exchange Leniency: If an informant cooperated against you and that informant was charged at the federal level, the charges against you will likely be federal charges as well. Federal informants often receive leniency when they are willing to inform and cooperate against others. Oftentimes, federal authorities “work up the food chain” and those newly arrested are given an opportunity to cooperate against others.
Prosecutorial Discretion: State and federal law enforcement often cooperate with each other for drug arrests. Likewise, state and federal prosecutors often coordinate the prosecutions of drug offenses by deciding who should be charged in federal court. This happens because the penalties and forfeiture are more severe if the case is prosecuted by federal authorities. As a result, a state case can be “adopted” by federal authorities and a new case is filed in federal court.
Differences Between Federal and State Drug Charges
State offenses for first-time offenders are generally determined to be less serious and carry much lighter penalties than federal drug crimes. Because there are a variety of federal mandates that impose mandatory minimum prison sentences, someone convicted of a federal drug crime may face significant time in the Bureau of Prisons. With two or more qualifying prior convictions for serious drug offenses or crimes of violence, a federal defendant may qualify for career offender sanctions and face enhanced sanctions.
Additionally, federal courts limit appeals if a defendant signs a plea agreement. Parole has been eliminated in the federal system. While federal sentencing laws allow for probation or home confinement, participation is practically non-existent. Due to these factors, federal drug crime charges are generally punished with lengthy prison sentences more severe than similar state charges.
Federal drug charges can also open you up to numerous other charges that may not seem directly related. Drug distribution charges can result in money laundering charges, tax evasion charges, or a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) violation that can result in additional jail time. Federal drug charges can relate to: