Federal Drug Crimes and Drug Conspiracies

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A drug conspiracy is defined as an agreement between two or more people to commit a drug crime. A federal drug conspiracy is an agreement to violate federal drug laws.

To prove that a person is guilty of drug conspiracy charges, the government must have sufficient evidence of two things: (1) there was an agreement between two or more people to violate a federal drug law; and (2) each alleged conspirator knew of the unlawful agreement and joined in it.

Types of Drug Conspiracy Charges

There are four types of drug crimes under 21 U.S.C. § 841 and 21 U.S.C. § 952:

  1. Manufacturing a controlled substance – “Manufacturing” can include any action involved in the production, processing, preparation, or extraction of a controlled substance, from growing a marijuana plant to pressing pills.
  2. Distributing a controlled substance – This means exactly what it sounds like, delivering a drug to someone, even if there is no money involved.
  3. Possessing a controlled substance with the intent to distribute it – Possessing an illegal drug is a separate, and less severe, crime than manufacturing or distribution. However, if the government can prove a person had an intent to distribute the drugs in their possession, the penalties are the same as if they actually distributed them. The government can use prior drug sales, possession of equipment such as scales and baggies, and even the amount of drugs in someone’s possession as evidence of an intent to distribute. If a person is caught with five pounds of marijuana, for example, the government can charge them with having an intent to distribute marijuana.
  4. Importing a controlled substance – Like distribution, this is a straightforward crime involving the importation of illegal drugs into the U.S., usually by deceiving U.S. Customs or Border Patrol.

WHAT ARE THE PENALTIES FOR A DRUG CONSPIRACY CHARGE?

The first thing to know about punishment in a federal drug case, is that the Judge always determines the punishment in a federal case (except in death penalty cases).   To determine punishment, the Judge must refer to the United States Sentencing Guidelines.  The Sentencing Guidelines is a manual that provides the Judge with a recommended punishment range based on the quantity and the type of drugs that were allegedly possessed during the crime.  Simply put, the more weight of narcotics possessed by an accused, the higher the punishment range will be according to the Sentencing Guidelines

There are several other factors besides the weight of a drug that may affect a person’s sentence such as: whether a firearm was used during the commission of the drug offense, whether a minor was allegedly used to commit the offense, or whether someone died or was seriously injured during the commission of the drug offense.

The Sentencing Guidelines is a long and complicated manual that experienced criminal defense attorneys MUST be familiar with for every drug case.  After reviewing the evidence in your case, an experienced lawyer will use the Guidelines to estimate the sentence you may be facing if you are found guilty of the alleged offense.  It is important to note that regardless of the recommended punishment range, a federal judge has the power to grant a “variance” from the recommended sentence and give you a sentence either above or below the recommended range stated by the Sentencing Guidelines.

STATUTORY MINIMUM AND MAXIMUM RANGES

Federal drug charges can carry mandatory minimum sentences.  Depending on the accused’s role in the offense, his criminal history, and the type and weight of drug possessed, the accused may be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of ten (10) years in certain federal drug cases. 

Mandatory minimums depend on the language used to draft the Indictment (charging instrument).

For cocaine and “crack” cocaine, if there is no quantity of cocaine or crack cocaine specified in the indictment, there is no mandatory minimum sentence, while the maximum sentence is 20 years. If there are 500 grams or more of a substance containing cocaine or 28 grams or more of a substance containing crack cocaine, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years and a maximum sentence of 40 years. If there are 5 or more kilograms of a substance containing cocaine or 280 grams or more of a substance containing crack cocaine, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison.

For methamphetamine, if there is no quantity of methamphetamine specified, there is no mandatory minimum sentence, while the maximum sentence is 20 years. If there are 5 grams or more of a substance containing methamphetamine, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years and a maximum sentence of 40 years. If there are 50 or more grams of a substance containing methamphetamine, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison.

For heroin, if there is no quantity of heroin specified, there is no mandatory minimum sentence, while the maximum sentence is 20 years. If there are 100 grams or more of a substance containing heroin, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years and a maximum sentence of 40 years. If there is 1 or more kilograms of a substance containing heroin, there is a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Law enforcement is also now prosecuting drug conspiracies involving opioids, especially fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. A controlled substance “analogue” is a chemical compound that is “substantially similar” to a controlled substance, both in chemical structure and in the effects it produces when consumed.

While fentanyl is a Schedule II drug, a fentanyl analogue is classified under Schedule I. There are no mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes involving fentanyl or fentanyl analogues.

Attorney Jorge Vela has extensive experience in each of the cases listed above.

Former Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA)

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Experienced Federal Criminal Trial Attorney

Jorge Vela spent nearly three years as a federal prosecutor along the U.S – Mexico border.   As a federal prosecutor, he was tasked with investigating violent Mexican drug cartels that were smuggling narcotics, weapons, and aliens across the border.  He worked closely with special agents from the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the State Department, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement on hundreds of federal cases.

If you or a loved one has been accused of a federal crime, your first question to your attorney should be “what kind of federal experience do you have?” Because of the serious nature of federal offenses, it is ABSOLUTELY imperative that you hire an attorney with federal trial experience. As a former federal prosecutor, Jorge Vela knows exactly how to fight your federal charges.

Hire an attorney you can trust. Contact the Law Office of Jorge Vela for a consultation today.