When is Selling Drugs a Federal Offense vs. a State Crime?

In addition to carrying a stigma, drug crimes are often punishable by heavy fines and long prison terms.

Many drug crimes, such as possession and intent to distribute, are prosecuted on the state level.

However, depending on the quantity, type, location, and whether you cross state lines, you could face federal charges.

Regardless of whether you are arrested for a federal or state crime, if you are charged with intent to distribute, or any other drug offense in Florida, you need experienced legal help.

Controlled Substances Act

In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substance Act (CSA), which combined all previous federal drug statutes into a single law.

The CSA regulates the distribution and manufacture of illegal substances such as narcotics, depressants, hallucinogens and stimulants.

The federal statute classifies drugs into five “Schedules” based on their potential for abuse and their medical benefits to society:

      • I — Includes ecstasy, LSD, heroin, and marijuana
      • II — Includes cocaine and morphine
      • III — Includes anabolic steroids, Vicodin, and Marinol
      • IV — Includes Ambien, Xanax, and Valium
      • V — Includes Lyrica and cough suppressant

The penalties you face depend on the schedule, the amount, and your drug crime history.

States have their own drug laws and penalties, but generally try to adhere to the CSA.

Federal vs. State

The federal government prohibits the manufacturing, possession, or distribution of controlled substances, which are rated on a scale ranging from Schedule I to Schedule IV, with Schedule I considered the most dangerous. Generally, federal law focuses on movement across state borders, such as drug trafficking, while state law focuses on the manufacturing and possession of drugs. Here are a few of the most common ways a drug charge can become a federal crime.

      1. As mentioned above, drug charges will become more severe if the crime committed involved crossing state lines or international borders. For example, if you cross state lines with a large quantity of a controlled substance, you may be charged with the federal offense of drug trafficking. A person found to be in violation of federal law will be subject to a sentence determined by the quantity of the controlled substance in their possession.
      2. Whether you face federal or state charges may also depend on your arresting officer. If a federal officer arrests you for drug trafficking, drug possession, or distribution of a controlled substance you will likely face criminal charges. Again, the severity of the charges is dictated by the amount of controlled substances in your possession, as well as other factors such as whether you had a firearm or other weapon on your person at the time of your arrest.
      3. You may also be charged with a federal drug offense if you are caught selling drugs on government property. For example, possessing or distributing a controlled substance in a federal courthouse or prison, federal office building, or national park will likely lead to federal charges as the crime committed occurred on property falling under federal jurisdiction.
      4. Finally, selling and transporting drugs via the United States Post Office, or even through a private mail carrier, may lead to a federal drug charge. Some people may erroneously believe that the Fourth Amendment protects them from having a package searched by the USPS, but that is not true. The USPS, UPS, and FedEx can all inspect a package if the inspector obtains a search warrant.

State drug laws generally focus on the possession and manufacturing of controlled substances. In Florida, possession – knowingly possessing a controlled substance – is one of the most common drug offenses.

In addition to possession, a person caught manufacturing or cultivating controlled substances will face state charges that vary in severity depending on the type of drug being manufactured and the quantity. Plus, it is important to understand that while recently many states have decriminalized marijuana possession, it remains illegal under federal law.

Federal Drug Crimes

Federal law covers many different types of drug crimes ranging from “simple possession” to drug trafficking. The most common federal drugs are:

      1. Possession: The Controlled Substances Act, Title 21 U.S.C. § 844, outlines the law and penalties for “simple possession” of controlled substances in the United States. According to the federal law, it is unlawful for any person to “knowingly or intentionally possess a controlled substance” unless it was obtained via a valid prescription order from a practicing medical professional. In this instance, it should be noted that possession does not simply refer to when someone is carrying drugs on their person, but is applicable whenever a person knowingly keeps drugs in a place where they have control over them, such as in their home.
      2. Possession with the intent to distribute is a serious federal offense. Drugs that are knowingly within one’s control, meaning they are on your person or in your home or car, are in the possession of a person. The government must also prove that you intended to distribute or sell the drugs in your possession. Typically, this is done by demonstrating that the amount of the drugs a person is holding is too large for personal use, or they also have packing materials and communications with customers. Both elements must be present simultaneously to commit this offense.
      3. Drug Manufacturing occurs when a person is involved in any step of the production of a controlled substance. To be convicted of drug manufacturing, the government must prove that you both possessed a controlled substance and intended to manufacture it. The presence of tools or materials, such as pseudoephedrine – a common cold medication that can also be used to make methamphetamine – is not necessarily enough for a conviction. However, the combination of lab equipment and pseudoephedrine could establish the probable cause needed for an arrest.
      4. Drug Trafficking refers to the sale, transportation, or importation of controlled substances. The difference between possession with the intent to distribute and drug trafficking is based on the amount of a substance the accused has in their possession. Knowingly possessing large amounts of scheduled controlled substances, along with the tools and materials needed to distribute them, can result in a drug trafficking conviction which can carry a harsh mandatory minimum sentence.
      5. Importing controlled substances into the United States, even if you have a valid prescription for the drug, is a federal crime. The Controlled Substances Import and Export Act outline the protocols that must be followed when importing controlled substances to the U.S. for medical or scientific purposes. If caught, people who are not authorized to import controlled substances can be charged with a federal crime.
      6. Conspiracy to commit a federal drug offense occurs when two or more people knowingly enter an agreement to break a federal drug law. In order to convict a person accused of conspiring to commit a federal drug offense, the government needs to prove that an agreement to break the law was made, and that each party knowingly entered said agreement.

Federal drug penalties and sentencing

Federal courts are notorious for handing down harsh sentences for drug related convictions. In 1986, mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for drug offenses were established, which affect both high- and low-level drug defendants. While these sentences are no longer mandatory thanks to a 2005 Supreme Court case, United States v Booker, they are still used as guidelines for sentencing. Sentences for Federal drug convictions are based on the type of drug, the quantity of the drug found in the defendant’s possession, as well as the defendant’s prior convictions and other aggravating factors.

Manufacturing, distributing, or possessing controlled substances with the intent to distribute can all result in serious prison time. The most severe sentences for these crimes are reserved for controlled substances classified in the Schedules I and II categories including heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, and marijuana.

Furthermore, a federal judge will consider prior convictions and/or aggravating factors, which could increase the length of a sentence for a federal drug offense. For example, was there a firearm involved when the crime was committed? Did anybody get hurt or killed during the crime? Were children present at the time the crime occurred, or were they forced to be involved with the crime?

Federal drug crime defense lawyer fights for Florida residents

Federal drug laws are complicated and the consequences for drug possession or drug trafficking can be severe. If you are arrested for a drug crime in Florida, the Law Office of Nayib Hassan, P.A., is ready to provide you with experienced defense counsel. Call (305) 403-7323 or contact us online to speak with an experienced drug crime attorney in Florida today.