Drug charges are a serious matter, yet misconceptions exist about the two types of charges beyond drug possession. Drug possession, which is the most common drug crime at the state level, is fairly straightforward. However, drug distribution and drug trafficking, which can be charged either at the state or federal level—or both—depending on the circumstances, can be a little more difficult.

Defining the crimes

A drug distribution charge is issued when law enforcement has reasonable cause to suspect a person is selling or providing controlled substances (drugs) illegally. Despite what you might think, law enforcement doesn’t have to catch a person in the act of selling drugs. Just being in possession of large amounts of cash along and a large quantity of illegal drugs could lead to an arrest. Notably, this also means that being in possession of a large quantity of drugs—even if the person truly intended it for personal use—could accelerate a drug possession charge to drug distribution.

Drug trafficking also refers to the illegal sale of a controlled substance. Contrary to popular belief, a charge of trafficking versus distribution depends on the weight of drugs present and does not necessitate the drugs crossing state lines. However, if the sale does cross state lines, the crime becomes a federal offense. Trafficking carries higher sentences than distribution charges.

Factors that influence the sentencing of these charges

  • The type and total weight of controlled substance present. The law categorizes controlled substances into five different “schedules,” with schedule one listing the most highly addictive substances with no medical use. These drugs carry the steepest penalties.
  • Location matters. If law enforcement arrests a person while trying to bring drugs into the country or near a school, the consequences are more severe.
  • Criminal history. If an individual has a history of criminal activity, the consequences will likely be more serious.

Penalties and sentences depend entirely on the drug involved and the specific circumstances of the arrest.