Drug Paraphernalia Charges
While you're probably aware that most non-prescription drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, or heroin, are illegal under federal and most state law, you might not know that a person can be prosecuted for possessing items related to those drugs, even if they aren't in possession of the actual drugs. This article covers what you need to know about the types of drug-related paraphernalia that are illegal, what the exceptions are, and what kinds of punishments are imposed for a person convicted on drug paraphernalia charges.
What Can Lead to Drug Paraphernalia Charges?
The precise actions that can lead to drug paraphernalia charges vary somewhat depending on whether the charges are brought under federal law or under the law of a particular state. Under federal law, a person may not do any of the following:
- Sell or offer to sell drug paraphernalia
- Mail drug paraphernalia or transport it through interstate commerce
- Import or export drug paraphernalia
Under some state laws, simply possessing certain prohibited items is enough for someone to potentially face drug paraphernalia charges, whether or not a person intended to sell or transport such items. However, it's important to remember that in such cases context can determine whether a given item is drug paraphernalia or if it's used for legitimate purposes. Prosecutors may use factors such as drug residue to decide if an item was used to distribute or ingest illegal drugs. On the other hand, if it's clear that a listed item, such as a pipe, bong, or hookah, was used strictly for smoking tobacco then a person is unlikely to face drug paraphernalia charges.
Defining Drug Paraphernalia
Drug paraphernalia is a term that includes any item that can be used in connection with illegal drugs. Drug paraphernalia can be divided into two main categories: those used to distribute drugs and those used to ingest drugs. This distinction can be important for someone who is facing drug paraphernalia charges, especially since things like ordinary household items such as scales or spoons can be also used in the distribution or consumption of illegal drugs.
According to federal law, one of the ways that a law enforcement officer can determine whether a given item is considered drug paraphernalia is the context of that item's use in the community. Therefore, someone facing drug paraphernalia charges could have a defense that he or she had authorization to possess the item depending on why law enforcement believes the item to be illegal.
Examples of Drug Paraphernalia
Some laws spell out exactly what items are considered drug paraphernalia. For example, some of the following objects are specifically listed as drug paraphernalia under federal law:
- Pipes made of glass, wood, stone, plastic, or ceramic
- Water pipes, bongs, and chillums (a long hollow pipe usually made of clay)
- Roach clips (objects used to hold burning materials like rolled cigarettes or joints that are too small to be held by hand)
- Miniature spoons that hold less than one-tenth of a cubic centimeter, often used for snorting cocaine
- Freebase cocaine kits, or paraphernalia used to smoke cocaine
Some states have similar lists of drug paraphernalia. For example, the law in Washington state includes some additional objects in its drug paraphernalia statute, such as:
- Scales and balances intended to weigh controlled substances
- Equipment designed to test the strength or purity of controlled substances
- Materials or chemicals used to "cut" or dilute the strength of narcotics
- Plastic bags or balloons used to package small amounts of a drug
- Syringes or needles for injecting controlled substances
Since each state can have a different list of illicit items, a person facing drug paraphernalia charges in one state might not be prosecuted in another state for possessing or selling the same item. State laws can also change rapidly. For example, some states such as Colorado and Washington legalized some uses of marijuana in 2014, meaning that some aspects of those states' drug paraphernalia laws may be altered to reflect this.
Penalties for Drug Paraphernalia Convictions
If someone has been convicted on drug paraphernalia charges, the penalties tend to be much less than for convictions for possessing or distributing drugs. Here, too, the penalties imposed vary depending on whether federal law applies or if the conviction was under a state law. A federal conviction for drug paraphernalia can carry a prison sentence of up to three years in addition to a fine.
Penalties under state law vary depending on where the sentence was imposed. For example, in California a conviction of drug paraphernalia charges is a misdemeanor resulting in at most one year in a county jail and a maximum fine of $1,000. Since the penalties can be serious, it's in your best interests to consult with a criminal defense attorney if you've been cited or arrested for a drug paraphernalia violation.