State vs. Federal Drug Offenses: What’s the Difference?


Drug crimes are serious offenses in the United States. Drug possession, drug manufacturing, drug distribution… All of these acts are illegal on both the state and federal levels. It can be difficult to determine how the charges differ on the different levels. If you are involved in illegal activity, you are bound to get in trouble with the law at some point.

Learning the difference between the two levels and the different drug charges can help you to navigate the confusion. It’s always a good idea to talk to your criminal justice lawyer if you have any questions when you have pending criminal charges.

Continue reading to learn the difference in drug offenses on the state and federal levels.

Federal or State

There are two levels of courts in the United States: federal and state. This is important to know because it affects what charges you will face, who you will be tried by, where your trial will take place, and which court system’s laws apply. If your drug charges are trying at the federal level then that means that they are being tried under federal law. The same thing applies to state charges being tried under state law.

Federal Charges


The experts from the Law Office of Joel M. Mann report that federal crimes include any crime that involves crossing state lines or international borders (like trafficking ). Because of this geographical requirement, many drug offenses can be filed as federal cases even if the drugs were never actually taken out of the state where they were found. It’s important to note that the federal government has much more authority in its court system than state governments do. This means that they can hand down harsher penalties and may allow for more charges to be filed on a single individual.

State Charges

Because of the geographic limitation, most drug charges start out as state charges. Someone may get pulled over and found with drugs on them, or they may have a tip called into the state police. The state police will then investigate and determine if a crime has been committed. If there is sufficient evidence that a crime has occurred, then the state prosecutor’s office will take up the case and press charges.

What Do They Have in Common?


On the state level and the federal level, the possession, manufacturing, and sale of controlled substances are illegal. This includes marijuana, methamphetamines, heroin, cocaine, and ecstasy.

Some controlled substances are used for specific purposes. However, when unsupervised (not prescribed) it has the potential to be abused. It’s then that they pose a danger to society. These controlled substances are classified under Schedules.

Schedule I drugs such as heroin and LSD do not have any medical purpose. They are more likely to be abused and have addictive qualities. Schedule II drugs like morphine may have a medicinal value in a controlled environment, though they still have an addictive quality when abused.

Schedule III, IV, and V drugs are less likely to be abused and have greater medicinal purposes. Schedule III drugs include anabolic steroids, codeine, and hydrocodone. Schedule IV drugs include benzodiazepines like Valium and Xanax. Schedule V drugs include OTC cough medicines with codeine in them.

The most severe sentences get reserved for those dealing with Schedule I and Schedule II drugs.

State Drug Offenses


Every state has its own laws pertaining to drug crimes. On the state level, you may see a focus on local manufacturing and possession of drugs. State drug offenses might include:

  • Possession
  • Possession with the intent to sell
  • Constructive possession (access or control of a location where drugs are found)
  • Manufacturing and cultivating drugs
  • Drug Distribution
  • Drug trafficking (referring to the quantity rather than the location/transportation of drugs)

In Georgia, a Violation of the Georgia Controlled Substance Act results in serious penalties. Georgia law considers possession of drugs to be a felony charge, with an exception for marijuana. The penalties of being in the possession of drugs depend on its Schedule.

Consequences of Drug Possession


The possession of Schedule I drugs and Schedule II (narcotic) drugs may result in 2 to 15 years in prison. A subsequent conviction will add up to 30 years to the original prison sentence. Possession of Schedule II (non-narcotic) drugs may end up with 2 to 15 years in prison as well.

The subsequent conviction can land you in prison for an additional 5 to 30 years. Having Schedule III, IV, and V drugs can land you in prison for anywhere between 1 and 5 years. Subsequent convictions can land you in jail for an additional 1 to 10 years. Marijuana possession is not considered on the Schedule, but it is still a controlled substance in Georgia.

This means that having less than 1 ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor resulting in up to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine. Having more than 1 ounce of marijuana when arrested means a felony charge where you might spend up to 10 years in jail (1 year being mandatory) and pay a fine of up to $5,000.

Getting arrested on a drug charge within 1,000 feet of a school, park, housing project, or drug-free zone has an even more stringent penalty. It is a felony charge regardless of what it is and how much you had on you. You can be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison (with a mandatory 5-year minimum) and have to pay up to $40,000 in fines.

Federal Drug Offenses


The federal government has its own set of rules for dealing with using, abusing, and distributing drugs. Federal drug offenses might include:

  • Drug trafficking (the most common drug charge)
  • Possession in a controlled environment
  • Possession with intent to sell or distribute
  • Drug manufacturing
  • Importing drugs into the United States
  • Conspiracy to commit a federal drug offense

Federal offenses usually involve crossing state lines or national borders into other jurisdictions. However, possession with the intent to sell and drug distribution can easily escalate to a federal offense depending on the specific situation.

If you were to get arrested by a federal officer, you will end up involved in a federal offense. For example, if a DEA official arrests you for smoking marijuana in a national park, you will be charged on a federal level.

Federal drug offenses are notorious for having harsher penalties than state drug offenses. The federal drug offense penalty usually comes with longer jail sentences. These sentences are based on:

  • Type of drug
  • Quantity of drug in the defendant’s possession
  • Defendant’s prior convictions
  • Other aggravating factors (involvement of firearms, injury/murder, or children)

These harsher penalties started in 1986 with the implementation of minimum mandatory sentencing guidelines. The case of the United States v Booker made it so that it was no longer mandatory due to the violation of the defendant’s rights as named in the Constitution.

Legal Guidance for Drug Offenses


Time is not on your side when it comes to drug offenses at either level. Your first call needs to be to an experienced criminal defense attorney. Getting in touch with a criminal justice attorney as soon as possible will help you get a better outcome for your case.

The experienced attorney will represent you through some of the most difficult times in your life. They can handle cases involving serious drug charges including drug trafficking, unlawful possession of controlled substances, and so much more. Several of our clients have had their charges reduced or dropped completely.