An opioid epidemic has spread across the U.S. with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that there were more than 72,000 drug overdose deaths nationwide last year. Although increased availability of street drugs such as heroin and illicit fentanyl are responsible for many of these deaths, an alarming number of overdose deaths are caused by prescription painkillers. Prescription deaths were five times higher in 2016 than they were in 1999. It is estimated that 200,000 people died from prescription drug overdoses during that 17-year period.
Unfortunately, a few physicians have been accused of essentially operating as drug traffickers by writing unnecessary prescriptions for highly addictive opioids such as fentanyl, hydrocodone, OxyContin, and morphine. These prescription pain-killer habits allow patients easy access to dangerous substances that can result in dependency and in some cases lead to overdose deaths.
Such is the case with a former North Texas pain management doctor who was accused of prescribing painkillers that caused or contributed to the deaths of at least seven people in Oklahoma and Texas between 2012 and 2016. A federal grand jury indicted him for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and several other federal drug charges.
The former doctor has since pleaded guilty to the charges, although he acknowledged responsibility for only one patient overdose death. He will serve 20 years in federal prison.
In an effort to address the opioid epidemic, law enforcement has cracked down on those who place opioids into the hands of users, including fraudulent pain management operations such as the case above. These cases are often prosecuted federally, as they frequently involve trafficking drugs across state lines, or large amounts of controlled substances.
As you can probably tell from the former doctor’s sentence, federal drug crime charges are quite serious. Federal cases are more thoroughly investigated, meaning that they are harder to defend against. Moreover, federal prosecutors often seek the maximum possible prison term.
When most people hear about “drug traffickers,” they picture hardened criminals and cartels that make a living from a life of crime. However, an individual can be charged with drug trafficking based simply on possessing an amount of substance that is considered too great for personal use.
To make sure you don’t get caught in the crosshairs of law enforcement officials striving to crack down due to the nation’s opioid problem, you need to have a clear understanding of the laws. In this post, we’re going to cover federal drug trafficking laws, including the sentencing and penalties you could face if convicted.
Defining Federal Drug Trafficking
Federal drug trafficking laws define drug trafficking as manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, or possessing an illicit substance with the intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense it.
In other words, because federal drug trafficking can be a crime of intent, this charge can also include what many people would view as possession.
It’s All about Drug Quantity
Federal guidelines state that drug trafficking charges are triggered when a defendant is in possession of more than a specific amount of a prohibited substance, which generally is a greater amount than the defendant would reasonably be expected to possess for personal use.
Drug trafficking charges apply when a defendant is found to be in possession of the following specific amounts of illicit substances:
- Cocaine powder: 500+ grams
- Cocaine base: 5+ grams
- Fentanyl: 40+ grams
- Heroin: 100+ grams
- LSD: 1+ grams mixture
- Methamphetamine: 5+ grams
- PCP: 10+ grams pure, 100+ grams mixture
Understanding Mandatory Minimums in General
Federal sentencing is notorious for mandatory minimums. Regardless of the specific circumstances, for certain types of crimes the defendant will be sentenced to at least the mandatory minimum, which is usually at least 5 years, if convicted.
However, in 2005 the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling in United States v Booker that threw out the mandatory nature of sentencing guidelines. Per this ruling, judges are to consider sentencing guidelines as advisory only, and may deviate from mandatory sentences.
Having said this, many (if not most) federal judges still impose mandatory minimum sentences, so defendants can generally expect a lengthy prison sentence if convicted of federal drug crimes.
Determining Factors for Drug Trafficking Sentencing
Both minimum and maximum penalties should be taken into account for defendants convicted of federal drug crimes. The minimums are the least-severe sentence a person can receive for an offense, but the guidelines also allow for maximum sentencing, which is at the discretion of the judge. For example, for trafficking 100-999 kg of marijuana, an offender could face a minimum of five years in prison, but their sentence could be as long as 40 years.
When determining federal drug trafficking sentencing, the court will take several factors into account, in addition to the type and amount of substance:
- The defendant’s prior criminal record, particularly prior drug crime convictions
- Whether anyone was killed or injured in the commission of the crime
- Whether the crime occurred in a school zone or other “drug free zone”
No matter how you look at it, federal drug trafficking charges are quite severe, and a conviction can be life-changing. If you are facing federal drug crime charges or are under investigation, you need to fight back, and you want the best chance at a positive outcome, you have to do so with the strongest possible defense strategy.