State and Federal Drug Laws
In every state in the country, possessing, manufacturing or distributing illegal drugs is a serious crime. The majority of the time, people are charged with low-level drug offenses at the state level. In certain circumstances, however, drug crimes are prosecuted by the federal government.
What makes a drug crime a state or federal offense? There are certain details about drug cases that can determine if they are handled by state or federal prosecutors.
In some cases, the difference between state and federal prosecution can be very slight and the decision on how to handle the case will be determined by the courts.
Understanding Drug Charges
To get a sense of how drug charges are handled by state and federal courts, it’s important to know some facts about drug laws.
Drugs, or controlled substances, are substances which the government prohibits or regulates. It should be noted that illicit drugs are illegal at both the state and the federal level.
This means that either entity can choose to prosecute a particular drug case. There are many ways that a drug crime can be moved from state to federal courts.
State Drug Charges
Most of the drug crimes that occur in the state of Texas are handled at the state level. This is primarily due to the fact that the majority of drug crimes that are prosecuted in state courts are possession offenses.
Possessing a drug simply means to have an illegal substance on your person or in your belongings. Because this offense does not usually include violent actions, profiting from drug sales or crossing state lines, it is typically handled by state courts.
For example, Martin is walking down the street when a police officer stops him and notices that he smells like marjiuana. If the officer searches Martin and finds marijuana, he can be charged with simple possession. This will almost always be handled in state or county court.
However, if certain conditions are met, Martin could be tried on federal charges.
Federal Drug Charges
The federal government most often investigates and prosecutes drug crimes which are large in scale or which are related to organized crime. While the federal government has the power and authority to investigate and prosecute simple possession cases, it does not typically do so because these crimes do not pose a big threat to the federal system.
Crimes which occur on government property or which involve federal systems are typically handled by federal agencies.
The most common way for a drug crime to become a federal offense is for the person committing the crime to be arrested by a federal agent. For example, if Martin was caught with the same amount of marijuana on federal property, such as the Lincoln Memorial, he could be charged with a federal offense.
This can also occur during drug busts. Federal and state officials may work together to carry out large-scale drug operations to break up criminal organizations. In this way, a person who is arrested for being a low-level drug dealer could be facing charges in federal court.
Drug trafficking frequently leads to federal charges. Distributing drugs on a massive scale or transporting them across state lines can cause the federal government to get involved, especially if this distribution uses federal systems, such as money transfers, banks and the postal system.
State and Federal Drug Penalties
Many people believe that federal drug penalties are much more harsh than state penalties for similar crimes. In reality, drug crimes are severely penalized at both levels. However, many federal drug cases involve crimes like large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering and are therefore punished more harshly.
However, even drug possession can be penalized at the state level. The federal government employs a system of mandatory minimum sentences which are intended to target criminal organizations.
These minimum sentences mean that a defendant must serve a mandatory term, usually of five or 10 years, for a drug crime. They will not be eligible for parole until this term is served. Also, a judge is not allowed to reduce the sentence below the indicated minimum, even if there are mitigating circumstances.
State drug penalties do not work in quite this same way. In Texas, a first-time minor drug offense may be punished with probation, community service and/or a short time in incarceration. Many people are given the opportunity to attend drug courts so that their convictions will be dropped after they complete their sentence. Also, people convicted of drug crimes in Texas may have the opportunity to receive parole long before their sentence in jail or prison is up.
Federal courts do not allow these things. It’s fair to say that federal drug sentences are usually tougher than state sentences for similar drug crimes.