Legally Speaking, What is Intent to Distribute?

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on April 05, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Drug arrests are serious offenses, and can lead to lengthy prison terms. Often, a person caught with drugs is charged not just with possession, but also "intent to distribute."

Prosecutors can try to prove intent to distribute with circumstantial evidence -- by establishing other facts that allow a judge or jury to infer that a defendant was dealing drugs.

Each drug-dealing case is different, but in general, here are six factors that prosecutors often use to establish an intent to distribute:

  1. An observed drug deal. Law enforcement officers -- undercover or otherwise -- can testify they saw drugs being exchanged. Such testimony can help establish that the drugs weren't just for personal use.
  2. Large quantities of drugs. If law enforcement agents find a large amount of drugs -- much more than a person can use for himself -- the quantity of drugs can suggest the drugs were meant to be distributed. But keep in mind, there's generally no "threshold" amount to suggest distribution -- it depends on your individual case.
  3. Drugs packaged for sale. The plastic baggie is often a drug dealer's worst nightmare when it comes to circumstantial evidence. Packaging drugs in small baggies is usually a telltale sign the drugs were being readied for distribution and sale.
  4. Scales and drug paraphernalia nearby. Electronic scales and other drug-measuring equipment can often suggest a person was weighing drugs in preparation for sale.
  5. Money lying around. A pile of cash, in connection with drugs, can also suggest drug-dealing was going on. The more money found lying around, the worse it can look for the alleged drug dealer.
  6. Messages from customers. Voicemails, pagers, and cell-phone text messages often explicitly reveal details of a drug-dealing operation. So too can a list of customers' names and phone numbers.

As with any criminal case, there are some defenses against drug possession and distribution charges, such as challenging police procedures that led to the collection of evidence. You may want to speak with an experienced defense attorney to get the best outcome for your drug case.

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