Laws regulating drug crimes are an area of intense interest in the United States right now. Many states have contemplated drug law reforms, including the increasing legalization of medical marijuana, and, in a few states, general marijuana use. These efforts reveal the complicated interplay between federal and state drug laws.
Controlled Substances Act
Drug crimes laws primarily target the use and distribution of controlled substances. Federal drug laws are governed by the Controlled Substances Act, 21 U.S.C. § 801 et seq., (“the CSA”) and most states model their own drug laws after the CSA. The CSA places drugs in five different categories, ranging from Schedule I to Schedule V drugs. Schedule I drugs are those drugs typically prohibited by drug laws as they have been deemed to have no safe accepted use. Schedule I drugs include marijuana, LSD, MDMA (also known as ecstasy), heroin, and other serious drugs. Schedule II drugs have an accepted medical use, but are also drugs for which there is a high potential for abuse. Accordingly, Schedule II drug use is permitted only with a prescription. Schedule II drugs include cocaine, methamphetamine, morphine and other amphetamines. Schedules III-V classify other drugs of varying degrees of severity and impose certain restrictions on their use, such as requiring that the user has a prescription or is over 21. Unlike Schedule I drugs, drugs in Schedules II-V are not per se illegal, but require that the patient use them in a regulated manner.
State Drug Laws
Although most states follow the CSA in setting forth their own drug laws, there are some important differences. While federal laws tend to focus on the movement of drugs across state borders, such as drug trafficking, state laws tend to focus on the means and methods of manufacture and distribution within the state itself. Thus, for instance, states most often enforce the crimes of drug possession and drug manufacturing. When targeting larger criminal operations, however, it is not uncommon for federal and state officials to utilize both state laws and the CSA in pursuing criminal charges against high profile drug operations.
Another distinction between state and federal drug laws is the increasing trend toward state legalization of medical marijuana and general marijuana use. In recent years, several states have made the decision to decriminalize these offenses, or lesser versions of these offenses (such as simple possession). Federal laws have not yet followed suit on this issue and there remains some tension between state and federal enforcement objectives.
Drug Sentencing Laws
Individuals convicted of federal drug crimes are subject to sentencing under a scheme of federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws can dictate a defendant’s sentence based on the type and amount of drug in the defendant’s possession, as well as any prior convictions that a defendant may have. They severely limit the ability of a judge to make discretionary decisions based on the context in which the crime occurred or the background of the defendant. As a result, these federal mandatory minimums have resulted in lengthy sentences for many drug criminals and have been criticized for contributing to prison overcrowding. For this reason, they remain a topic of considerable debate.