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  • Getting caught possessing, manufacturing, or distributing drugs can have serious financial and legal consequences. 

    While statistics show that one in five incarcerated people is locked up for drugs, the penalties for drug charges will vary based on the location of the offense, type of substance, and other factors. 

    Luckily, there are resources available to people who need affordable legal help or want to seek drug treatment, as well as other aids that can help turn their life around. 

    Here, you will find information on:

    • what constitutes a drug charge
    • what happens when you receive a drug charge
    • supportive programs for people with drug charges
    • resources for people with a drug charge  

    What Is A Drug Charge?

    A drug charge occurs when a person is caught in possession of an illicit substance, such as methamphetamine or heroin, that is restricted at the federal and state levels. 

    Depending on where the charge is levied, as well as the amount and type of the substance, convictions on drug charges can carry severe sentences, including jail time. 

    Types Of Drug Charges

    Below are some of the most common types of drug charges under state and federal law. 

    Possession Of Drug Paraphernalia

    Drug paraphernalia is any item that may be used to produce, consume, or conceal a controlled substance. 

    This can include:

    Possession of drug paraphernalia usually qualifies as a misdemeanor but can be considered a felony in some states. 

    Possession Of A Controlled Substance

    A person can be convicted of possession of a controlled substance if it’s proved that they knowingly possessed a substance that is listed on the federal schedule of controlled substances.

    Possession falls under the categories of actual or constructive. Constructive possession is when the substance is within a person’s custody or control, such as in a person’s home or backpack. 

    Actual possession is when the controlled substance is found on the person or within easy reach.  

    Delivery Of A Controlled Substance

    Delivery of a controlled substance is when somebody knowingly distributes or delivers a controlled substance.

    This crime may include any weight or amount of the drug. For example, if a person shares a prescription opioid pill with someone else, it can be an offense under this law.   

    Drug Trafficking

    Drug trafficking is one of the most serious drug crimes a person can commit, and is determined by the amount and weight of the controlled substance being delivered. 

    When a person is accused of a trafficking crime it is usually referred to prosecution in federal court, where penalties will be much more severe than in state court. 

    Illegal Manufacture Of A Controlled Substance

    While some controlled substances are manufactured in legal pharmaceutical labs, there are many others that are made in clandestine labs in the United States or other countries. 

    Drugs such as methamphetamine, PCP, and marijuana are often made in the U.S., while heroin, cocaine, and fentanyl are typically manufactured in other countries and illegally imported. 

    Common Substances Associated With Drug Charges

    The Controlled Substances Act of 1970 puts all federally regulated substances into one of five different schedules based on the drug’s potential for abuse, safety, and medical use.  

    Schedule I

    Schedule I drugs have no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

    Substances currently considered Schedule I drugs include:

    • heroin
    • MDMA (ecstasy)
    • marijuana
    • methamphetamine
    • lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)

    Schedule II

    Drugs under Schedule II have acceptable medical uses but also have a high potential for abuse. 

    These may include:

    • Zoloft
    • Adderall
    • oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
    • fentanyl 
    • morphine
    • hydromorphone
    • other narcotics

    Schedule III

    Schedule III drugs may lead to moderate physical or psychological dependence and have accepted medical use in the United States. 

    These substances include:

    • ketamine 
    • Viagra
    • buprenorphine
    • anabolic steroids

    Schedule IV

    Substances under Schedule IV have a low potential for abuse and are widely accepted for medicinal use. 

    Schedule IV drugs include:

    • Ambien
    • Klonopin
    • Ativan
    • phenobarbital
    • Lunesta
    • Prozac
    • temazepam
    • Valium
    • Xanax  

    Schedule V

    Schedule V drugs are considered to have the lowest potential for abuse and may lead to limited psychological or physical dependence. 

    These drugs include:

    • Lyrica
    • small amounts of codeine
    • Robitussin AC
    • Lomotil 

    Factors That Influence Drug Charge Penalties

    Listed below are a few of the many factors that may influence how severe the penalty is for a drug charge

    • previous arrest history
    • location of the drug charge
    • whether the charge is a felony or misdemeanor
    • citizenship status
    • whether a weapon was used during the drug offense
    • involvement of a minor
    • the quantity of the drug
    • whether the person knew that they possessed the drugs in question
    • police conduct; i.e., whether an improper search or abuse of power was used by the police
    • other aggravating circumstances

    What Happens When You Receive A Drug Charge?

    The legal procedures for a drug charge will be different depending on the unique circumstances involving the charge, such as whether violence or weapons were involved. 


    If a police officer arrests someone for a drug-related offense it doesn’t mean they’re convicted of the crime. If arrested, it’s recommended that a person stays calm and says as little as possible. 

    Once taken to the police station, the person in custody has the right to make a telephone call to a family member, friend, or defense attorney. 

    Arraignment Hearing

    After being processed at the police station, the arraignment hearing will take place. 

    This is a court proceeding that advises a person of their rights and allows the defendant to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty, or no contest. 

    Bail Or Jail

    During the arraignment, a person may request that a bail amount be set for release from jail. 

    Depending on the circumstances surrounding the drug charge, a judge may grant bail and allow the person to be released from jail and remain at home during their trial.

    If bail is not granted, or if a person cannot afford to post bail, they will have to remain in a jail cell for the duration of their trial. 


    Whether ultimately convicted of a drug crime or not, there will be a steep financial burden on a person arrested for a drug offense. 

    While the cost of an attorney may be minimal depending on a person’s ability to hire counsel on their own, there are an array of fines that may be applied, starting at a minimum of $1,000. 

    Serious drug crimes may result in a $1 million maximum fine, 32 years in prison, and a mandatory parole period of three years.

    Fines are in addition to any legal, medical, and other related expenses that may have accumulated as a result of the drug charge. 

    Can You Attend A Drug Rehab Program Instead Of Serving Jail Time?

    Some people who have been charged with an alcohol- or drug-related offense may be able to attend a substance abuse treatment program instead of going to jail. 

    Drug offenders may be able to use this option provided their crime did not result in the death of another person. 

    Court-ordered or court-mandated treatment will usually take place in a residential facility and will include an array of evidence-based treatment services. 

    Addiction recovery services may include:

    How A Drug Charge May Affect Employment

    If a person is employed when they’re charged with a drug crime, it may have detrimental effects on their current and future job prospects.

    A drug charge is a time-consuming process and will require going through a trial and court proceedings. It may require missing many days of work, raising suspicions from the employer. 

    Depending on the rules set by the employer, a person can be fired from their job for receiving a drug charge, particularly if the employer turns down applicants who have been convicted of crimes.

    Drug charges can also affect future employment, as some employers will not hire anyone with a prior conviction on their record.

    If a prospective employer asks for a criminal background check, it’s a good indication that they will not hire someone charged with a drug crime. However, this is not always the case.

    Steps To Take If You Receive A Drug Charge

    Below are some of the important steps you can take if a drug charge is levied against you

    • Utilize your right to remain silent. Anything you say to law enforcement can be used against you in court. Contact a defense attorney as soon as possible to discuss your case. 
    • Ask the court to suppress the evidence. In the event that the police violated your constitutional rights when they seized the drugs you allegedly had, the judge may suppress the evidence and dismiss the case without a trial. 
    • Challenge the evidence of possession. The prosecution may not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you possessed the controlled substance. Having an illegal drug in your proximity or possession does not automatically mean a crime has been committed. 
    • Know the line of entrapment. An undercover police officer cannot force you to buy, sell, or hold drugs under any threat. If they did, it is considered entrapment and you cannot be legally arrested under this kind of duress. 
    • Question lab results. Have your attorney question how many false positives come out of the crime lab per year. It’s also possible the substance under question got lost in the chain of custody, or the prosecution submitted the wrong evidence to the lab. 
    • Post bail, if you can. If a bail amount has been set, you may be able to pay bail out of your own pocket or secure the funds from a bail bond agent. Posting bail will allow you to stay out of a jail cell and concentrate fully on defending yourself in court. 

    Support For People With A Drug Charge

    There are a number of supportive services that people with a drug charge can use to get the help they need

    American Bar Association

    The American Bar Association website offers free legal answers to a range of questions. People can submit their questions on the site and a volunteer attorney will send a response promptly. 

    This website does not accept questions about child custody, housing matters, debt issues, or divorce.  

    Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

    SAMHSA is a federal agency that leads public health and behavioral health efforts in the United States. 

    There are many programs backed by SAMHSA that can help people get the substance use treatment they need, in some cases at little or no cost. 

    One such option is Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs). These clinics offer residential treatment options or outpatient addiction treatment services at no cost to the client.  

    U.S. Department Of Justice Pro Bono Legal Service Providers

    The Department of Justice (DOJ) website offers a list of pro bono legal service providers, categorized by state.

    “Pro bono legal services” refers to uncompensated legal services performed for the public good without any expectation of future repayment. 

    People with a drug charge can use services such as these to find a reputable, affordable attorney. 

    U.S. Department Of Veterans Affairs (VA)

    Veterans who have received a drug charge can get free legal help through the VA. Due to COVID-19, free legal clinics are not operating on-site at most VA facilities. 

    However, many non-VA legal providers are still offering services to veterans by phone or email correspondence. 

    The VA also offers drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs that may include medical detox services, mental health treatment, behavioral therapy, and more. 

    Resources For Overcoming A Drug Charge

    A drug charge is a serious offense, but help is available in the form of government programs, non-profit organizations, and other resources designed to help people with a drug charge. 

    Addiction Treatment Resources

    Drug Charge Legal Resources

    • National Drug Court Resource Center — This organization assists people in understanding the role of drug courts in the criminal court system. Participants who complete a drug court program may have their criminal offenses dismissed or expunged. 
    • National Motorists Association (NMA) — The NMA is dedicated to protecting the rights of motorists. Some of the resources available here include DUI lawyer referrals and information about legal aid grants. 

    Resources For Veterans With A Drug Charge

    • Vets4Warriors This public-private organization is dedicated to helping veterans and their family members with confidential peer support. Correspondence can be made through phone, chat, text, or email. 
    • StatesideLegal Here, veterans with low incomes and their family members can find local legal services free of charge.  

    Resources For Women With A Drug Charge

    • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) The ACLU offers a wealth of information about the impact of drug policies on women, as well as women’s rights in the criminal justice system. 
    • The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) — The DPA is a leading organization that promotes alternatives to the war on drugs. Here, women can find information about how to access medication-assisted treatment (MAT) while in jail.

    Drug Charge Support For Teens

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    Prison Policy Initiative - 1 in 5 incarcerated people is locked up for a drug offense
    U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - Drug Policy
    U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) - Drug Scheduling

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
    on February 16, 2023
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