State and Federal law enforcement have been prosecuting a “war on drugs” since the 1980s – with State legislatures and Congress passing a vast array of criminal laws designed to punish people who possess, sell or manufacture illegal drugs with longer and longer prison sentences. Defendants range from casual users to addicts, to occasional dealers, to drug kingpins – but the court system often fails to treat people fairly and proportionally.
Even though there is a very recent trend to roll back some of the most senseless punishments for these non-violent offenders, long prison sentences are far too common. And police often bend the rules and violate a person’s rights in making their case. A criminal defense lawyer handling a drug case first has to fight to get the innocent cleared. Even when an acquittal is not possible, diligence and a willingness to stand up against the system are required to get reasonable, rational results for the client so their life is not ruined.
Drug cases are usually prosecuted in the local State courts. Cases involving large quantities of drugs, interstate trafficking, and those where guns are involved are sometimes prosecuted in Federal Court. It is a common myth that Federal sentences are always longer than State. North Carolina law provides for long, mandatory minimum prison sentences for higher quantities. A person convicted of possessing 10 pounds of marijuana must serve at least 2 years in prison. 28 grams of an opiate like heroin is no less than 19 years. Manufacturing a drug like methamphetamine (crystal meth) is a focus of law enforcement because of the poisonous toxins emitted during the process.
Everyone knows the common illegal drugs – marijuana, cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, methamphetamine, LSD, to name a few. But there are new drugs being created all the time commonly called synthetic cannabinoids, bath salts, etc. which have become a focus of police and the DEA. These cases are highly technical and rely on proof that the chemical structure and physiological effect of the new compound is “analogous” to some other illegal drug or controlled substance. Defending these cases requires an understanding of the chemistry. Legal prescription drugs are illegal to possess without a doctor’s prescription. Many of them are also the most addictive substances available, and often people charged with what is called “prescription drug fraud” need drug treatment rather than jail time.
Defending felony drug cases requires knowledge of several technical issues. The traffic stops, frisks, search warrants, surveillance, and interrogations used by police and Federal agents to build their case all implicate Constitutional rights. When those rights are violated, the evidence can be suppressed or “thrown out of court.” Without a thorough knowledge of these complex laws, a lawyer may not even spot the issue. Drug cases are the most common prosecutions involving conspiracies, where multiple people are involved in the illegal activity. Law enforcement often uses informants for information and later as witnesses. They usually offer sentence reductions to informants in exchange for the help, and these deals can be incentives to lie about someone. Experience and skill are needed to expose these lies and exonerate the wrongly accused. Particularly in the so-called bath salts cases, chemical analysis and forensic toxicology are integral to the defense.