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Drug Trafficking/Distribution

Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors.

Drug distribution or trafficking laws penalize the selling, transportation, and illegal import of unlawful controlled substances, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and other illegal drugs. The punishment for drug trafficking can vary widely depending on several factors including the type and quantity of drugs involved, the type of drugs, geographic area of distribution, and whether children were targeted. Sentences for drug distribution and trafficking can generally range from 3-5 years to life in prison, but can be substantially higher when larger quantities are involved.

Drug trafficking/distribution is a felony, and is a more serious crime than drug possession. If you're found in possession of drugs, you could be charged with trafficking if police believe you intended to sell them. If you're found with a large quantity of drugs or cash at the time of your arrest, it is likely you'll be facing drug distribution charges.

Drug distribution or trafficking also applies to the illegal distribution of prescription drugs, such as pain killers or sleeping pills. The illegal distribution of prescription drugs often involves hydrocodone products and pharmaceutical opiates.

Drug Trafficking & Controlled Substances

When a state or federal government classifies a substance as "controlled," it generally means that the use and distribution of the substance is governed by law. Controlled substances are often classified at different levels or "schedules" under federal and state statutes. For instance, marijuana is listed as a "Schedule I controlled substance," cocaine is listed under Schedule II, anabolic steroids under Schedule III, under the federal Controlled Substances Act. The Act lists the drugs that fall under each Schedule.

  • Schedule I means the drug is highly addictive; has no accepted medical use; and is not safe even under medical supervision.
  • Schedule II means the drug is highly addictive; has medical uses; may lead to severe drug dependence.
  • Schedule III means the drug has a low potential for abuse; has accepted medical uses; and moderate risk of dependence.
  • Schedule IV and V both have low potential for drug abuse; have accepted medical uses; and have limited potential for dependence.

Trafficking Charges

Both federal and state laws come into play on drug trafficking cases. If a person is caught trafficking a controlled substance across state lines, federal law will apply, but if the drug trafficking is entirely within one state, that state's laws will apply.

There is a multitude of federal drug laws on the books, plus each state also has its own set of drug laws. Many state laws are modeled after the federal laws and provide minimum sentencing standards for offenders. Lawmakers generally pass these laws to deter the major drug cartels, but more often it is the lower level dealers that get prosecuted. Indeed, the controversy around drug trafficking laws is that a petty drug dealer can often face a longer sentence than violent criminals.

Federal Drug Trafficking Charges

The Federal government prohibits any person from manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, or possessing controlled substances. A person found in violation is subject to sentencing based on the quantity of the prohibited substance. The details about prison sentences and fines for controlled substances are found in federal statutes. As an example, here are a few of the applicable penalties:

  • 10 years to life in prison for 1 kilogram of heroin; 5 kilograms of cocaine; or 1000 kilograms of marijuana;
  • 5 to 40 years for 100 grams of heroin; or 500 grams of cocaine; or
  • Not more than 5 years for 50 kilograms of marijuana.

The prison sentences increase for higher amounts controlled substances. There are also penalty enhancements if death or serious bodily injury results and for prior convictions. In addition, prison term enhancements can apply to convictions for drug trafficking if the person is considered the leader or if a firearm is involved. Note that the firearm sentences are not concurrent with the sentence for drug trafficking. This means that the convicted person would serve the prison term for the drug offense and then serve the additional term for the firearm afterwards.

State Drug Trafficking Charges

Just like federal law, all states prohibit the manufacture, distribution, or possession of controlled substances. Typically, state prison sentences are less than a federal prison sentence, but not always. Further, states control smaller amounts than the federal government. For instance, Arizona assumes that possession of 1 gram of heroin, 9 grams of cocaine or 2 pounds of marijuana by a person is for distribution.

Legalized Marijuana

The legalization of marijuana by some states has thrown a monkey wrench into the drug trafficking laws. Marijuana is still illegal as far as the federal government is concerned and their enforcement has not changed even in states that have legalized it on a state level. It is important to note that trafficking over certain amounts of marijuana is still illegal even where marijuana is legal. For instance, it is a felony in Colorado to transport as little as 4 ounces with the jail time and fines increasing with higher quantities.

Get Legal Help with Your Drug Trafficking Case

Drug trafficking charges could result in jail time, seized assets, and a ruined reputation. For this reason, it's in your best interest to contact a local drug crime attorney to discuss your case and learn about your options moving forward.

Next Steps

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