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Penalties and Sentencing for Drug Abuse, Selling, and Smuggling in the USA

Problematic substance use has the potential to negatively impact every area of your life. As dependence and addiction to alcohol or other drugs develop, these substances may begin to influence your physical and mental health, significantly affecting the way you feel and think.1 With time, your social relationships and employment status may suffer as becoming drunk or high becomes your sole focus.1 Drug abuse and addiction can even steal away your freedom.

Depending on the situation and the substances involved, possessing, selling, manufacturing, or transporting drugs (even legal ones) can lead to serious legal consequences, the effects of which may last a lifetime.2

Legal Consequences of Drugs

People caught engaging in illegal behaviors involving drugs face a variety of consequences, including:2,3

  • Time in jail or federal prison.
  • Heavy fines.
  • Community service.
  • Probation.
  • Other forms of confinement like house arrest.
  • A criminal record—affects your ability to get or maintain a job, receive approval for college loans, vote, own a gun, or join the military.

Jails and prisons are filled with people charged with crimes related to drugs. In 2012, judges sentenced nearly 95,000 people to prison for drug charges.4 As a comparison, the category with the next highest sentencing rate was weapons charges, with about 28,000 offenders.4

What Are the Penalties for Drug Abuse and Possession in the United States Based On?

Penalties for drug-related charges are determined by several factors: the substance, the amount of the substance in question, the activity the person was engaged in, and any prior encounters with law enforcement.5,6 Those repeatedly committing serious crimes with large amounts of dangerous drugs are more likely to receive harsher penalties.4-6

Drug Enforcement Schedules

With regard to law enforcement, not all drugs are treated equally. Both legal and illicit substances are separated into categories based on their perceived risks and medical benefits (or lack thereof). These categories developed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)—called schedules—play a significant role in dictating legal penalties on the federal level. Individual states may treat these drugs differently. See below for schedules and examples of drugs in those schedules.5-7

Schedule I: Substances with a strong potential for abuse and no medically recognized purpose.

Schedule II: Drugs that have approved medical uses but still have a strong potential for abuse and dependence.

Schedule III: Medications and substances with a slightly lower risk of abuse and dependence than drugs in Schedule II.

Schedule IV: Medications with a slightly lower risk of abuse and dependence.

Schedule V: Drugs with the lowest risk.

  • Lyrica.
  • Cough medications containing low codeine levels.

What Are the Consequences of Drug Possession?

Simple possession is a crime that occurs when a person has a small amount of a substance on their person or available for their own use.3 For simple possession to apply, there must be no intent to sell or give the drug to someone else.

If an individual is caught in possession of illegal drugs or controlled substances, they can face jail time. The length of jail time differs according to the state in which the offense occurs and the previous criminal record of the individual. Under federal law, simple possession is a misdemeanor offense that can lead to a prison term of a year or less for a first offense. However, for subsequent offenses, felony charges and additional years of jail time may apply.3,8

In addition, individuals in the U.S. could face steep fines for possession of drugs. At the federal level, simple possession carries a fine of at least $1,000.3 Some judges may require that the individual commits a large number of hours to community service, as well.6

Legal Consequences of Selling Drugs

drug dealing

Selling drugs carries much harsher penalties than those received for simple drug possession in the U.S. Consequences will vary by state, but, as an example, in Wisconsin, any delivery or distribution of a controlled substance is a felony with a fine of up to $100,000 and 40 years imprisonment.6 An individual who has repeatedly been caught selling drugs may face double the fines and incarceration time, depending upon the situation.6

Those who are found guilty of selling drugs to a minor face an even bleaker future, with prison terms that can increase by 5 years from standard sentences.6 A person employing someone aged 17 or younger to deliver drugs faces a Class F felony, and the law doesn’t allow for a defense based on not knowing the minor’s age.6

To charge someone with possession of drugs and intent to sell, law enforcement officers will look for evidence like large amounts of cash, scales, or small plastic bags that would be employed in the sale of drugs. In some instances, it doesn’t take much of a substance to spawn these charges. You can be charged with a Class F felony for intending to distribute less than 3 grams of heroin in some states.6

Smuggling Drugs Into the United States

Like selling drugs, trafficking controlled substances into and across the United States is a serious offense, and it is considered a federal crime with long mandatory sentences.7 For many Schedule I and II controlled substances, the first trafficking offense is punishable by at least 5 years in prison.7 If someone was seriously injured in the process, the minimum sentence is moved to 20 years.7 Fines for a first individual trafficking offense can be up to $5 million.7 The penalties increase based on the quantity of the substance and the number of offenses. A second offense that leads to serious injury has a penalty of mandatory life imprisonment.7

The vast majority of people currently incarcerated in the American prison system for drug charges are there for trafficking charges.4 Often, individuals who are caught trafficking drugs may not be carrying enormous amounts, but rather just enough to cross the line to be charged with trafficking. In the case of LSD, 1 gram is needed to warrant trafficking charges.7

Additional Charges and Penalties

man getting pulled over for drunk driving

Along with possession and trafficking, people can receive drug-related charges for:6,8,9

  • Manufacturing—Using ingredients to produce or manipulate controlled substances can bring about penalties that equal or surpass those for drug dealing.
  • Paraphernalia—Possessing or advertising any materials primarily associated with growing, storing, packaging, or using controlled substances can lead to fines and, in some cases, jail time.
  • Driving while intoxicated—Operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances, including prescribed medications, can result in jail time, fines, and driver’s license revocation.

Drug Penalties Around the World

Penalties for drug-related crimes vary drastically from country to country:10

  • In the Czech Republic, people are freely allowed to possess small amounts of marijuana and heroin for personal use.
  • In Portugal, drug possession was decriminalized in 2001, so users do not serve jail time. Rather, they face fines and community service. This change has not led to an increase in drug use rates and has been correlated with a sharp increase in individuals seeking treatment for addiction.

Other parts of the world are crueler in their treatment of substance users:10

  • The United Arab Emirates gives jail time to those with tiny amounts of drugs in their urine or blood.
  • In Indonesia, drug trafficking is punishable by long jail sentences and sometimes the death penalty.
  • People in possession of drugs in Iran can face a public lashing for their crime. Other offenses such as trafficking can lead to the death penalty. About 70% of Iran’s executions stem from drug charges.

How to Find Drug Rehab Programs

The legal ramifications of drug possession in the United States and around the world can be quite steep. If you or someone you know is regularly using drugs, finding effective treatment options can mean the difference between freedom and incarceration; life and death. Don’t stand by while your future is lost to drug addiction.

Rehab programs are located throughout the U.S., and a variety of treatment types is available. You can use SAMHSA’s Find Treatment tool to search for facilities. Many state government websites will provide local drug and alcohol resources to those in need. To find your state government’s website, do a web search for your state name and ‘.gov.’

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading treatment provider and has trusted rehab programs across the country. Please contact us free today at and we can connect you with a high-quality treatment program.

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