Drug Possession Incarcerations in the U.S.
More than a quarter of the nation’s arrests, 26% to be exact, are related to drug offenses. Criminal defense attorneys across the United States are tasked with representing their clients as they face drug possession charges, as well as other violations, and defend their clients against ever-evolving laws. It’s important to note that, although federal drug laws are in place, each state also has its own laws and its own penalties.
The penalties attached to drug convictions depend in part on the type of drug the person was found with and the amount. Charges for drug trafficking have more severe prison sentences than convictions for drug possession. Drugs are arranged into schedules. A Schedule I or II Narcotic Substance can bring with it fines that can reach $25,000 and up to twenty years in prison. Any convictions after the first can bring with them harsher penalties. Schedule I and II Hallucinogenic Substances have similar sentencing guidelines in most places. Possessing, selling, or making Schedule III, IV, and V substances can result in a fine of $15,000 and up to 5 years in prison. Again, any subsequent convictions will carry stiffer penalties like higher fines or more prison time.
Why are drugs put into schedules and how are the schedules decided? The clarification schedules are the work of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Not only do they classify illegal drugs, but they also classify medications. These include prescription drugs and drugs purchased over the counter. The nation overall has seen sharply rising incidents of prescription drug abuse. This has led to more incarcerations of people who possess illegally obtained prescription drugs.
There are different schedules. Schedule I drugs are those with no known medical use and a high probability of being abused by the people who take them. Examples include heroin and LSD. Schedule II drugs do have a known medical use but still have a high chance of being abused. Examples of schedule II drugs include cocaine, methadone, and oxycodone. Schedule III: Drugs with a known medical use and no more than a moderate chance of abuse. ADHD drugs, like Ritalin and Adderall, are Schedule III drugs. Schedule IV drugs have medical use and a low chance of being abused. Ambien, for example, is a Schedule IV drug. Schedule V: Have an even lower chance of being abused. Cough syrup is a Schedule V drug according to the DEA.
What’s the difference between drug possession and other drug-related charges? Drug possession charges mean the police believe or have evidence that a person was in possession of a controlled substance. The next step up in charges is the intent to distribute. Prosecutors make this charge when the person found with the drugs has a significant amount of the substance. People can also be charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. The charges a person initially receives aren’t necessarily the ones they will be sentenced upon. It depends on the prosecutor assigned to the case, but it also depends on the criminal defense attorney hired by the accused.
People found with a controlled substance are typically arrested. They are taken to a local jail for booking. Those accused of crimes have the right to have a criminal defense attorney to defend them in court. The first thing the attorney will do is try and arrange bail for their client. Usually to get bail or bond the accused, or someone close to them has to put up money as a way of promising they will show up for all court appearances if the judge lets them out of jail until their trial. Some jurisdictions don’t require bail and will let people out on a signature. Next, the attorney will gather information and meet with the prosecutor. Often an important part of any criminal defense strategy is trying to arrange a plea deal. A plea deal means the accused doesn’t go to trial, but instead pleads guilty to lesser charges or accepts alternative sentencing.
One way the criminal justice system has tried to combat the high rates of people being incarcerated for drug charges is by promoting alternative programs that keep people out of prison. These alternatives can include inpatient drug treatment, intensive outpatient programs, regular meetings with probation officers, regular drug testing, involvement with programs like Narcotics Anonymous, and other ways of making sure people get help to combat any dependency on drugs instead of simply sending them to prison. Criminal defense attorneys will have information about these programs.
- Who’s Using and Who’s Doing Time: Incarceration, the War on Drugs, and Public Health
- More Imprisonment Does Not Reduce State Drug Problems
- Ending the War on Drugs: By the Numbers
- Sentencing Drug Offenders: The Incarceration Addiction (PDF)
- Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2022
- Marijuana Arrests by the Numbers
- Arrests and the Criminal Legal System
- How to Find a Drug Possession Attorney
- The Drug War, Mass Incarceration, and Race
- Mass Incarceration and Criminalization
- Controlled Substances: Federal Policies and Enforcement
- Ending the War on Drugs in Travis County, Texas: How Low-Level Drug Possession Arrests are Harmful and Ineffective (PDF)
- The War on Drugs and Prison Growth: Limited Importance, and Limited Legislative Options (PDF)
- The Drug Report: A Review of America’s Disparate Possession Penalties
- Is the ‘War on Drugs’ Over? Arrest Statistics Say No
- Incarceration and Health: A Family Medicine Perspective
- How Many Years Can Someone Be in Jail for Drug Possession?