Controlled Substances Act of 1971 (commonly abbreviated as “CSA”) is the statute governs federal drug charges. Under Controlled Substances Act, the penalties for federal drug charges are very steep. Many charges have mandatory minimum sentences (i.e. 5, 10 or 20 years) and steep maximums (20-40 years, or life). The different federal drug charges are explained in greater detail below.

What is a Controlled Substance for the Purpose of Federal Drug Charges?

The term “Controlled Substance” is defined in Section 802(6) of the Controlled Substances Act. This term means a drug or other substance, or immediate precursor, included in schedule I, II, III, IV, or V of Controlled Substances Act. Importantly, the term does not include distilled spirits, wine, malt beverages, or tobacco.

What is an “immediate precursor” as the Term is Used in Federal Drug Charges?

The term “immediate precursor” is defined in 21 U.S.C. Section 802(23).  An immediate precursor means a substance:

  • Which the Attorney General has found to be and by regulation designated as being the principal compound used, or produced primarily for use, in the manufacture of a controlled substance;
  • Which is an immediate chemical intermediary used or likely to be used in the manufacture of such controlled substance; AND
  • The control of which is necessary to prevent, curtail, or limit the manufacture of such controlled substance.

Types of Federal Drug Charges

Federal Drug Charges can be divided into four categories. Specifically, they are:

  • Importing a Controlled Substance into the United States,
  • Distributing a Controlled Substance,
  • Manufacturing a Controlled Substance,
  • Possession of Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute.

Importing a Controlled Substance into the United States

The federal Importation of Controlled Substances Substances charge is codified in 21 U.S.C. Section 952. This charge has two different subsections that prohibit importation of controlled substances. Subsection (a) applies to Controlled Substances in Schedule I or II as well as Narcotic Drugs in Schedule III, IV and V. Subsection (b) applies to Non-Narcotic Controlled Substances in Schedule III, IV and V.

21 U.S.C. Section 952(a)

Under 21 U.S.C. Section 952(a), it is unlawful to import into the customs territory of the United States from any place outside thereof, any controlled substance in schedule I or II of subchapter I of this chapter, or any narcotic drug in schedule III, IV, or V of subchapter I of this chapter, or ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, or phenylpropanolamine,

21 U.S.C. Section 952(b)

Under 21 U.S.C. Section 952(b), it is unlawful to import into the customs territory of the United States from any place outside thereof any nonnarcotic controlled substance in schedule III, IV, or V. The exception to this charge is if importation is done for medical, scientific, or other legitimate use.

Distributing a Controlled Substance

21 U.S.C. Section 841 prohibits distribution of controlled substances. The term “distribution” is defined broadly, as “deliver a controlled substance to an ultimate user.” This includes any transfer of a controlled substance, except for dispensing it. There is no minimum quantity requirement for the distribution charge. Similarly, there is no requirement that the distribution involve money changing hands. Sometimes, federal prosecutors charge 21 U.S.C. Section 841 violations as distribution for simply sharing drugs with your friend, without receiving any money.

Manufacturing a Controlled Substance

 This involves any part of the production process of an illegal drug (growing, processing, extracting, etc.).

Manufacture: For purposes of Section 841(a), “‘manufacture’ means the production … or processing of a drug, and the term ‘production’ includes the manufacture, planting, cultivation, growing, or harvesting of a controlled substance.”

Possession of Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute

 This involves cases where a person is arrested with an illegal drug, and the government can prove that he or she meant to distribute it. Prosecutors can use evidence collected at the time, like scales, baggies or the amount of drugs on the person at the time to build a case that the person meant to sell it.

Possession with Intent to Distribute or Dispense: The government may satisfy the possession element with evidence of either actual or constructive possession. “Actual possession is the knowing, direct, and physical control over a thing.” “Constructive possession exists when a person knowingly has the power and intention at a given time to exercise dominion and control over an object either directly or through others.”

What Are the Penalties for Federal Drug Charges?

The penalties for federal drug charges depend on several factors. They are:

  • Type of controlled substance,
  • Weight of the controlled substance,
  • Individual’s past criminal record, AND
  • Injuries or fatalities attributed to the offense.

Most severe penalties relate to 8 types of drugs that are considered most susceptible to abuse, and least appropriate for medicinal use. These substances are all located in Schedule I and Schedule II. Specifically, they are:

  • Marihuana,
  • Methamphetamine,
  • Powder Cocaine,
  • Cocaine Base (Crack),
  • Heroin,
  • PCD,
  • Fentanyl, AND
  • LSD.

Marihuana Federal Drug Sentencing

Federal marihuana cases involving 100 kilograms or more of marihuana are punishable by:

  • 5 year mandatory minimum,
  • 10 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction AND the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury

Federal marihuana cases involving 1,000 kilograms or more of marihuana are punishable by:

  • 10 year mandatory minimum,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction or if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction and the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury or if the offender has two or more prior felony drug convictions.

In situations where there is no alleged amount of marijuana, or if the amount is less than 100 kilograms, there is no mandatory minimum. In that situation, 20 years is the statutory maximum for these federal drug charges.

Methamphetamine Federal Drug Sentencing

Federal drug charges involving over 5 grams of methamphetamine are punishable by:

  • 5 year mandatory minimum,
  • 10 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction AND the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury

However, when the weight of methamphetamine is over 50 grams, these charges are punishable by:

  • 10 year mandatory minimum,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction or if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction and the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury or if the offender has two or more prior felony drug convictions.

When the weight of methamphetamine is not specified, or is less than 5 grams, there is no mandatory minimum, but a 20-year maximum.

Powder Cocaine Federal Drug Sentencing

Federal drug charges involving over 500 grams of powder cocaine are punishable by:

  • 5 year mandatory minimum,
  • 10 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction AND the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury.

when the weight of methamphetamine is over 50 grams, these charges are punishable by/ powder cocaine – 5 kilograms,

  • 10 year mandatory minimum,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction or if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction and the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury or if the offender has two or more prior felony drug convictions.

When the weight of methamphetamine is not specified, or is less than 5 grams, there is no mandatory minimum, but a 20-year maximum.

Cocaine Base (Crack) Federal Drug Sentencing

Federal drug charges involving over 5 grams of methamphetamine are punishable by/ crack – 28 grams

  • 5 year mandatory minimum,
  • 10 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction AND the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury.

when the weight of methamphetamine is over 50 grams, these charges are punishable by/ crack – 280 grams,

  • 10 year mandatory minimum,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction or if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction and the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury or if the offender has two or more prior felony drug convictions.

When the weight of methamphetamine is not specified, or is less than 5 grams, there is no mandatory minimum, but a 20-year maximum.

Heroin Federal Drug Sentencing

Federal drug charges involving over 5 grams of methamphetamine are punishable by/ heroin – 100 grams;

  • 5 year mandatory minimum,
  • 10 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction AND the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury.

when the weight of methamphetamine is over 50 grams, these charges are punishable by/ heroin – 1 kilogram;

  • 10 year mandatory minimum,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction or if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction and the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury or if the offender has two or more prior felony drug convictions.

When the weight of methamphetamine is not specified, or is less than 5 grams, there is no mandatory minimum, but a 20-year maximum.

PCP Federal Drug Sentencing

Federal drug charges involving over 5 grams of methamphetamine are punishable by/ PCP – 10 grams

  • 5 year mandatory minimum,
  • 10 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction AND the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury.

when the weight of methamphetamine is over 50 grams, these charges are punishable by/ PCP – 100 grams,

  • 10 year mandatory minimum,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction or if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction and the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury or if the offender has two or more prior felony drug convictions.

When the weight of methamphetamine is not specified, or is less than 5 grams, there is no mandatory minimum, but a 20-year maximum.

Fentanyl Federal Drug Sentencing

Federal drug charges involving over 40 grams of fentanyl are punishable by:

  • 5 year mandatory minimum,
  • 10 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction AND the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury.

When the weight of fentanyl is over 400 grams, these charges are punishable by:

  • 10 year mandatory minimum,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction or if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction and the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury or if the offender has two or more prior felony drug convictions.

When the weight of fentanyl  is not specified, or is less than 40 grams, there is no mandatory minimum, but a 20-year maximum.

LSD Federal Drug Sentencing

Federal drug charges involving over 1 gram of LSD:  

  • 5 year mandatory minimum,
  • 10 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction AND the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury.

When the weight of LSD is over 10 grams, these charges are punishable by:

  • 10 year mandatory minimum,
  • 20 year mandatory minimum if the offender has a prior drug felony conviction or if the offense results in death or serious bodily injury,
  • A mandatory term of life imprisonment if the offender has a prior felony drug conviction and the offense resulted in death or serious bodily injury or if the offender has two or more prior felony drug convictions.

When the weight of LSD is not specified, or is less than 1 gram, there is no mandatory minimum, but a 20-year maximum.

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