drug laws

Melissa is a mother of 2, lives in Utah, and writes for a multitude of sites. She is currently the EIC of HarcourtHealth.com and writes about health, wellness, and business topics.

In the age of rapid marijuana legalization, state by state, you have to wonder how the federal government plays a role in drug laws.

You may have seen on some of your favorite shows, or read in the news that federal legislation can change the legal game for states.

Even for small cases of possession, and not just for marijuana, there are laws that can affect the outcome of a state or district trial.

Whether you’re curious for your own legal trouble, or just out of curiosity. Let’s talk about drug laws.

What Are The Drug Laws?

While every state’s laws vary, the overlying set of laws in the U.S. federal government lies in the Title 21 USC Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

The gist of the law states the prohibition of unauthorized possession, manufacturing, distribution or dispensing of controlled substances.

These laws include controlled substances such as alcohol, marijuana, prescription medications, and all illegal substances, such as cocaine and heroin. Possession offenses alone can include sentences of:

  • Time in jail or federal prison
  • Heavy fines – No less than $1, 000 and up to a maximum of $100, 000
  • Community service
  • Probation
  • House arrest
  • A criminal record – This can severely limit your job potential, as well as hinder social status. Not only that, it can greatly increase sentencing for any future offenses.

The issue is that some of this conflicts with state drug laws. This is most prevalent with possession laws, as opposed to manufacturing and distribution. Find our more about drug possession laws by state here.

What are the Types of Drugs?

With so many drugs out there, it’s hard to keep track. The government has taken care of that for us. Every drug has its own classification.

Under the CSA provisions, drugs are classified by schedules.

These schedules are distinctions based off of the risk of addiction, and the known medical benefits they offer.

Schedule I

These are drugs classified as the highest risk for potential addiction, with no medically-recognized purpose. These include:

  • Heroin
  • LSD
  • Marijuana
  • Peyote
  • MDMA/Ecstasy

Schedule II

These drugs may have some known medical uses, but pose a high risk for abuse. These include:

  • Cocaine
  • Opioid pain medication (Oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine)
  • Methamphetamine
  • Prescription stimulant medications (Ritalin, Adderall)

Schedule III

These are typically medications with a visible, but lower risk of abuse.

  • Codeine
  • Ketamine
  • Steroids

Schedule IV

These are medications with a low risk of addiction.

  • Benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin)
  • Tramadol

Schedule V

Drugs with the lowest risks, with clear medical purposes.

  • Cough medicine
  • Lyrica

Naturally, the classification of the drug typically affects the sentencing. A major issue with this is that there are now 10 states in the union with legalized recreational marijuana, and an additional 21 states that have legalized it for medical use.

If the majority of U.S. states now have a federally-classified Schedule I drug legal for use, to some degree, how does that impact federal sentencing?

What You Need To Know

Have you ever heard of somebody spending extensive time in jail for a small possession charge? It can happen.

Fortunately, for marijuana users in legal states, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) does not spend a lot of time or resources on fighting state-legal activities.

The federal government, so far, has mainly been staying out of the affair. This, however, does not mean that they do not have the authority to interfere. Banks are hesitant to give loans for legal marijuana businesses, considering all assets can be seized by the federal government at any time.

The main issue is crossing state lines. If you are trying to transport marijuana from California to Massachusetts (both legal states), you can face drug trafficking charges, on a federal level.

You may be asking: “Who would do that?”

A surprising amount of people are charged with drug trafficking in the U.S., at a higher rate than anywhere in the world.

The rate at which people are being sentenced is rising significantly. Axcess News tells the story of the progression of felons across generations.

There was not enough data reported from all of the states, but the states included showed a trend – felonies are on the rise.

It is safe to assume that the dramatic rise of felony convictions has something to do with federal drug laws.

A major issue is that even if states pass legislation on drug crimes, such as mandatory minimums or other sentencing laws, the federal government still takes precedent, and can convict an offender themselves.

What Can Happen?

So, we already discussed the types of sentences you can receive. Let’s go a little more in-depth and see how extensive and widespread this issue is.


It is common knowledge that you can face prison time for drug offenses. So, is possession really that common of a conviction ending in a prison sentence?

Until the early 1970s, with the CSA taking affect in 1971, the incarceration rate was in a steady decline. Between that period and 2010, the rate has more than tripled.

Currently, the U.S. has the highest prison population in the world. It is estimated that the country alone holds 22% of the incarcerated population in the world. This is widely due to drug sentencing.

Other countries are leading the way to prevent this. Our neighbors to the north have less than a third of our incarceration rate. Check out their newest update on drugs here.

Illegal behavior involved with any controlled substance can result in federal prison, if the court sees it fit.

Prison and heavy fines are not the only issues an offender can face. Drug offenses can trickle to just about every part of an offender’s life, outside of legal consequences.


It’s not just about sentencing. People can lose their jobs for drug use or possession, including marijuana, even if it is legal in their state.

Because of the Controlled Substances Act, there have been cases where a patient, who is prescribed medical marijuana in a legalized state, can lose their job for possession or use.

This goes the same for states with legalized recreational marijuana. The federal and state laws are not always on the same page.

Losing a job, missing opportunities, possible prison time and paying heavy fines can ruin an offender’s life, but it doesn’t stop there.

Denial of Federal Benefits

Under the provisions of the CSA, a federal drug conviction can result in the loss of school loans, grants, scholarships, contracts and licenses.

For drug trafficking, denial of these benefits can be issued for up to 5 years for the first offense, and 1 year for possession.

Forfeiture of Personal Property

Okay, so you’ve lost your federal benefits, a job opportunity, some time of your life in prison, and a good sum of your money.

Well, the CSA states: “any person convicted of a federal drug offense punishable by more than one year in prison shall forfeit to the United States any personal or real property related to the violation, including houses, cars, and other personal belongings.”

Just for the sake of keeping track, possession of drugs alone can result in losing your job, your savings, your time, your home, your assets, and possibility of receiving government benefits.

One might ask: “Could it get any worse?”

In short, yes.


We’ve covered a lot about possession charges. Let’s talk about the big dogs.

Possession of even trace amounts of drugs, crossing state lines, including ecstasy, cocaine or methamphetamine can result in a prison sentence of up to 5 years and a fine of up to $10, 000.

Larger quantities and prior conviction could result in a life sentence, and fines reaching $25, 000.

The amount being carried is irrelevant. If you cross state lines with any illegal substances, it could result in a lot of legal consequences.

While fines and prison sentencing are clearly harsher for trafficking charges, imagine the scale to which it would affect other aspects of your life.

A prospective job may very well overlook a small marijuana possession charge, but having trafficking on your record is an entirely different ball game.

What Can I Do?

Keep up with the news. Federal drug legislation and drug laws by state can change frequently.

If you find yourself in a position of being caught with illegal substances crossing state lines, your best option is a strong defense. Read more here.

A strong defense is the best you can ask for in this situation. Knowing the law and having professional help is invaluable.

Minimizing your risk of a criminal record is arguably more critical than reducing jail time.

Just remember, you have the right to an attorney in all 50 states, as part of the Miranda Rights established in 1966. Use those rights if you are caught in this position.

What Now?

Until state and federal law can learn to coexist peacefully, without interference, protecting yourself is key.

Not getting involved is the safest option in this matter. Putting yourself in these positions is extremely risky.

Circumstances vary heavily, so if you are caught with a possession or trafficking charge, you are probably very nervous. Get yourself some legal assistance, and they will take care of the rest. Do your research and get the help you need!

Keeping up to date with drug laws, both state and federal, and educating yourself on these laws can be very important. New federal and state legislation can be passed at any time, so it’s always best to read up on the news. Keep checking out our national news and business news to find out more!