How much jail time do you get for federal drug charges?

Jail time for federal drug charges is based on the type and quantities of drugs involved. The reason is that more "serious" drugs, and greater quantities of drugs, trigger more severe statutory sentence ranges and United States Sentencing Guideline ranges. Every federal crime comes with a statutory maximum and a statutory minimum sentencing range. With only a couple of exceptions, a sentencing court must sentence a defendant to a term of imprisonment that falls within the statutory range.

Examples of some federal statutory ranges for possession with intent to distribute, where the defendant is a first time felony drug offender, are as follows:

Drug Type / Quantity

Statutory Minimum
Prison Sentence

Statutory Maximum
Prison Sentence

Applicable Law
(Statute)

1KG of Heroin

10 years

Life

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(A)(i)

5KG of cocaine

10 years

Life

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(A)(ii)

280g of Crack

10 years

Life

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(A)(iii)

1,000KG of Marijuana

10 years

Life

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(A)(vii)

50g of (Pure) Meth

10 years

Life

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(A)(viii)

100g of Heroin

5 years

40 years

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(B)(i)

500g of Cocaine

5 years

40 years

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(B)(ii)

28g of Crack

5 years

40 years

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(B)(iii)

100KG of Marijuana

5 years

40 years

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(B)(vii)

5g of (Pure) Meth

5 years

40 years

21 U.S.C. §
841(b)(1)(B)(viii)

As shown, statutory ranges in federal drug cases can be quite large-allowing for sentences anywhere from 5 to 40 years, or 10 years to life, in many cases.

Where a sentence falls within the applicable statutory range is influenced greatly by the United States Sentencing Guidelines ("USSG" or "guidelines"). The guidelines are a series of rules that are applied to a particular case to determine a "guideline range," which is in essence a recommended sentence range. When the guidelines became effective in 1989 they were mandatory, meaning that the sentence imposed had to be within the guideline range. However, in 2005, the Supreme Court decided United States v. Booker, which resulted in the guidelines being ruled "advisory," meaning only recommendations. Guidelines are calculated based on the characteristics of a defendant's offense, and the nature of the defendant's prior criminal history. Specifically, the guidelines are calculated by determining an offender's "Total Offense Level" (which is based on certain listed offense characteristics) and "Criminal History Category" (which is based on an offender's prior criminal history)-the higher the Total Offense Level and/or Criminal History Category, the higher the recommended sentence. An offender's Total Offense Level is largely the product of determining whether certain aggravating factors apply in a particular case-in drug cases, the most important factor in determining Total Offense Level is the quantity of drugs involved. Once a Total Offense Level and Criminal History Category is calculated for an offender, courts cross reference the Sentencing Table, reproduced below, to determine the applicable guideline range:

Sentencing Table

Keywords: Federal drug charge sentences differ depending on the types and quantities of drugs involved. This table breaks down the jail time for various federal drug violations.

U.S. vs. J.R.
Charge: Mail Fraud (9 Counts), Conspiracy to Commit Mail Fraud
Facing: Three years in prison
Result: One year, One day

Our client was convicted of nine counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. The government alleged that our client fraudulently obtained more than $115,000 from her former employer. At the sentencing hearing, the Judge granted our motion for a downward departure, sentencing our client to one year and one day. The government had asked the judge to sentence our client to several years.