Drug charges are some of the most controversial criminal charges prosecuted in California and throughout the United States. While many argue that some nonviolent drug charges such as simple possession do not warrant the seemingly harsh penalties that typically follow conviction, widespread drug abuse has an undeniably deleterious effect on American society. Drug offenses are prosecuted quite aggressively in California. If you or a loved one face any kind of drug charge, you should know what to expect as your case unfolds.
Many people conflate the different possible drug charges in California. To make matters more confusing, several recent changes to the California criminal code have taken effect. Review the following information so you know what each drug charge entails and what you could expect in terms of sentencing.
In 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, which reduced the penalty classification of many nonviolent drug offenses from felony status to the misdemeanor level. This law applied retroactively, allowing many California inmates serving prison time for previously felonious drug charges to petition for resentencing and early release, in some cases.
California was also the first US state to decriminalize marijuana consumption for adults over 21 with Proposition 64. It is legal for adults over 21 to purchase, consume, and possess up to 28.5 grams of marijuana or up to eight grams of cannabis concentrates, with some restrictions. It remains illegal to smoke marijuana while driving, and you cannot possess marijuana on school grounds, near daycare centers, youth centers, or government property. Marijuana is also legal for medical use, and those who have prescriptions for medical cannabis are exempt from sales tax.
Although it is legal to purchase and consume marijuana from licensed dispensaries, “street” sales of marijuana remain illegal in California. It is still possible to incur drug possession, possession with intent to sell, and drug trafficking charges for marijuana.
Drug charges in California can be broadly grouped into four main types: possession, possession with intent to sell, trafficking, and federal crimes.
The term “drug possession” has a strict legal definition. “Drug possession” as a criminal offense applies to the illegal possession of a controlled substance. California assigns various drugs and controlled substances to a Scheduling system based on the substance’s potential for abuse and medical applications:
The penalty for a drug possession charge fluctuates based on two factors: the quantity of the drug in question and the drug’s Schedule. Put simply, a drug possession charge for a large quantity of a Schedule I substance will incur a much harsher penalty than a possession charge for a smaller quantity of a Schedule III substance. Proposition 47 reduced the standard penalty for simple possession to up to one year in county jail. However, very large quantities of an illegal substance generally open up the defendant to more severe criminal charges, such as drug possession with intent to sell or drug trafficking.
When an individual is arrested in possession of a large quantity of illegal drugs or have a sizeable quantity accompanied by paraphernalia that indicates they intended to illegally sell the drug (baggies, a scale, or other measurement devices), the individual is likely to face a more severe charge of possession with intent to sell. This offense is a violation of California’s Health and Safety Code with a potential sentence of up to four years in county jail and fines up to $20,000.
It’s common in California for possession with intent to sell to be coupled with additional charges. For example, if you were arrested in possession of a firearm or while committing a different crime, you could face additional weapons charges or violent crime charges depending on your actions leading up to arrest.
Perhaps the most severe drug charge one can face in California is drug trafficking. This charge is similar to possession with intent to sell in some ways, but the main differentiating factor is whether the defendant transported the drugs over a long distance. For example, if you are charged with drug trafficking within a single county, you could face up to five years in state prison. However, if you traveled through non-contiguous counties (meaning more than two counties), your penalty could escalate to up to nine years in state prison and substantial fines.
It’s vital to remember that law enforcement agencies at both the state and federal levels have the authority to conduct drug crime investigations and conduct arrests. If you were arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), or any other federal agency, you will face much more severe penalties than a state-level case. Additionally, your case will go to federal court, meaning you need a defense attorney familiar with federal criminal court proceedings.
First-time offenses convicted in federal court typically incur a sentence of five years in federal prison, but high enough quantities can lead to ten years in prison. Additionally, if an individual incurs a second federal offense at the typical ten-year penalty level, they face 20 years in prison.
Any type of drug conviction can have a disastrous impact on your life, so it’s essential to secure defense counsel as soon as possible after you have been arrested for any drug charges. It’s always worth fighting against criminal charges to prevent the creation of a permanent criminal record. Even if you know you broke the law, an experienced criminal defense lawyer can potentially help you secure a lighter sentence or at least avoid the worst penalties your conviction could entail.
The attorneys at Zentz & Zentz provide comprehensive and aggressive defense counsel for our clients in San Diego. If you have been arrested for any type of drug charge, we can help. Contact us today to schedule a consultation with our team.