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What are the penalties for 21 U.S. Code § 841 violations?

For many years, drug trafficking penalties were not much more severe than DUI or other criminal penalties. Then, in 1986, at a party to celebrate his draft by the Boston Celtics, college basketball phenom Len Bias did one line of cocaine, laid down, and died. An autopsy revealed that he had no other drugs in his system and he had no pre-existing medical conditions. 1986 was an election year. So, Congressmen who were anxious to appear tough on crime approved harsh mandatory minimum sentences for minor drug trafficking offenses.

Lawmakers began eliminating those draconian sentences in the early 2000s. Furthermore, former President Barack Obama pardoned thousands of people who had been sentenced under these laws. Many of these former defendants had served their sentences and been released. But the collateral effects of their convictions continued. 

The LA criminal defense lawyers at H Law Group understand the short- and long-term consequences of a federal drug trafficking conviction. So, we look for every possible way to reduce or eliminate the consequences of a drug trafficking conviction. From the moment you partner with us, our professional team starts working for you. 

Elements of a Drug Conspiracy or Similar Case

Federal drug trafficking penalties are very severe, as outlined below. Furthermore, federal prosecutors do not need much evidence to impose these penalties on defendants. The federal drug trafficking law, is quite broad, as follows:

  • Manufacturing Drugs: Basically, manufacturing drugs is combining certain legal substances to create an illegal substance. The process doesn’t need to be fully complete for these charges to hold up in court. However, it must be at least substantially complete.
  • Distributing Drugs: This d-word usually involves a drug distribution network, with a boss at the top and salespeople at the bottom. An informal network usually does not meet the distribution requirement.
  • Dispensing Drugs: In this context, dispensing is somewhat similar to sharing. Financial profit is basically the only motive for a drug distribution network. Profit is secondary in drug dispensing claims. In fact, giving drugs away could be dispensing drugs.

Attention to detail matters in these situations. If the indictment does not include the correct verb (manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing), drug trafficking charges are difficult to prove in court.

Moreover, federal prosecutors must either establish actual manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing, or possession with intent to do one of these things. Police stings and other such operations often lead to in flagrante delicto (red-handed) illegal transfers. Normally, however, prosecutors must use circumstantial evidence to establish intent.

Finally, the substance could be a controlled substance or a counterfeit substance, which is basically a fake prescription or other drug.

Direct Penalties

In terms of direct penalties, there are basically two levels of drug trafficking offenses in federal court: mandatory minimum and probation eligible.

Mandatory minimum prison sentences are much lighter today than they were in the late 1980s, because of Len Bias’ death, and the 1990s, because of the 1994 Crime Bill. Today, mandatory drug trafficking minimums start at:

  • 100kgs of marijuana, which is about 100 mature plants,
  • 500g of cocaine (a gram is about the size of a paperclip),
  • 100g of heroin,
  • 50g of partial meth (i.e. is lacking one or more ingredients),
  • 40g of fentanyl,
  • 28g of crack,
  • 10g of PCP, 
  • 5g of actual meth, and
  • 1g of LSD.

The mandatory minimum prison sentence is either five or ten years. The maximum prison sentence is forty years to life.

Weight is not the only factor that can trigger a mandatory minimum. One prior drug felony, two prior drug crimes, or two prior violent felonies also supports an enhancement.

Additional penalties apply if someone who used the drug died or was seriously injured, or if the offense occurred near a school, playground, youth center, video arcade, pool, or public housing complex.

Details matter. If a controlled substance on this list was mixed with a substance not on the list, which is a common practice, the drug weight is different. Location enhancements are another example. A restaurant with a handful of video games is not an arcade and an apartment complex with a few affordable housing units is not a public housing development.

If prosecutors can establish the elements of drug manufacturing, distribution, or distributing, but the amount is below the mandatory minimum threshold or the defendant doesn’t have a disqualifying criminal record, probation is usually available.

As a general rule, the period of probation is about half the prison term length (e.g. a six-year prison sentence means three years of probation). During this time, defendants must comply with a number of conditions. Some are generic, such as avoiding further trouble with the law. Others are offense-specific, such as submitting to random drug tests.

Deferred disposition, a special kind of probation, could be available in these cases as well. The defendant pleads guilty, but the judge doesn’t officially find the defendant guilty. Instead, the judge defers that portion of the proceeding until the end of the period of probation. At that point, if the defendant successfully completed probation, the judge dismisses the case.

These offenders may be eligible for early discharge from probation. The judge may discharge probation after a year. The probation officer has this power after defendants serve half their sentences.

Indirect Penalties

All offenses, especially felony drug convictions, have significant indirect penalties, mostly in terms of employment, higher education, police targeting, and professional licenses.

To many potential employers, a felony drug trafficking conviction is about the worst offense a person can commit, outside of murder or sexual assault. A possession conviction, especially an older one, might be explained away as a “wrong place at the wrong time” conviction. But there is no sugar coating a trafficking conviction.

Legally, criminal convictions never fall off your permanent record. However, the searches most potential employers perform only go back seven years. 

A felony drug conviction could mean denial of financial aid or disciplinary action, including probation, suspension, or expulsion.

There is not much an LA criminal defense lawyer can do about financial aid. Lying on the application is usually a federal offense. However, before a university or college metes out disciplinary action, it must provide notice and an opportunity to be heard. That’s especially true for public institutions. An LA criminal defense lawyer can represent students at these hearings and present mitigating circumstances.

As mentioned, criminal convictions remain on your permanent record forever. If someone commits a drug crime, or any other crime, near your home or place of business, investigators are almost sure to come knocking. And, they are usually not very polite. Usually, the best thing to do is remain silent and ask for an LA criminal defense attorney. Be advised that, if you assert this right, investigators will almost surely arrest you.

Most professional licenses in California require no felony convictions. In this context, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So, if possible, it’s important to reduce felonies to misdemeanors. Other remedies might be available, such as executive pardon,

Obtaining this remedy is not as difficult as you may think. Presentation and timing are usually the keys to success. An LA criminal defense attorney must know how to pitch the pardon application and who to pitch it to. This person is usually an associate chief of staff. Additionally, the application must jive with the president’s political agenda.

Effective representation reduces or eliminates the harsh direct and indirect consequences of a drug trafficking conviction. For a confidential consultation with an experienced LA criminal defense lawyer, contact the H Law Group. Convenient payment plans are available.

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