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Overview of Federal Drug Crimes

Drug offenses can be prosecuted at either the state or federal level. Drug crimes may be prosecuted at the federal level if they involve activity across state lines or have some sort of interstate (multi-state) impact. The federal system is much more complex than state criminal justice systems. Generally, prosecutors at the federal level are much more aggressive, and a conviction at the federal level can result in much more severe penalties than if the case was prosecuted at the state level. 

Federal Drug Offenses: The Controlled Substances Act 

Drug crimes are governed by The Controlled Substances Act (“CSA”), which makes it illegal for any person to knowingly or intentionally manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with the intent to distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance or counterfeit substance. See 21 U.S.C. § 841 (a). 

The CSA covers a variety of drugs, including prescription medication and illegal drugs. Under the CSA, substances are classified into five different “Schedules” based upon the substance’s medical use, potential for abuse, and safety or dependence liability. See 21 U.S.C. § 811(c). 

Schedule I Controlled Substances

Schedule I substances have no currently accepted medical use in the United States, a lack of accepted safety for use under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse. Some examples of substances listed in Schedule I are: heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), marijuana (cannabis), peyote, methaqualone, and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (“Ecstasy”).

Schedule II Controlled Substances

Schedule II substances have a high potential for abuse which may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence. Some examples of Schedule II narcotics include hydromorphone (Dilaudid®), methadone (Dolophine®), meperidine (Demerol®), oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®), and fentanyl (Sublimaze®, Duragesic®).  Other Schedule II narcotics include: morphine, opium, codeine, and hydrocodone.

Schedule III Controlled Substances

Schedule III substances have a potential for abuse less than substances in Schedules I or II and abuse may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence. Some examples of Schedule III narcotics include products containing not more than 90 milligrams of codeine per dosage unit (Tylenol with Codeine®), and buprenorphine (Suboxone®).

Schedule IV Controlled Substances

Schedule IV substances have a low potential for abuse relative to substances in Schedule III. Examples of Schedule IV substances include alprazolam (Xanax®), carisoprodol (Soma®), clonazepam (Klonopin®), clorazepate (Tranxene®), diazepam (Valium®), lorazepam (Ativan®), midazolam (Versed®), temazepam (Restoril®), and triazolam (Halcion®).

Schedule V Controlled Substances

Schedule V substances have a low potential for abuse relative to substances listed in Schedule IV and consist primarily of preparations containing limited quantities of certain narcotics. Examples of Schedule V substances include cough preparations containing not more than 200 milligrams of codeine per 100 milliliters or per 100 grams (Robitussin AC®, Phenergan with Codeine®), and ezogabine.

Federal Penalties

Federal sentencing guidelines may influence the sentence a judge will impose, and the severity of the penalties will depend largely on the type (or Schedule) and the quantity of drugs involved in the case. For example, a conviction for trafficking more than 400 grams of a mixture containing a “detectable amount” of fentanyl is subject to a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment of ten years. If the defendant has prior drug convictions, then the penalties under the CSA may be further advanced. 

There are a very narrow exceptions to these mandatory minimum sentences, but it is important to have a skilled criminal defense attorney to help navigate the complex federal criminal justice system in order to ensure the best possible outcome. 

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