Penalties for Intent to Distribute Prescription Drugs

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on September 06, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Prescription drugs can save lives. Then can also be addictive and potentially deadly. And the line between legitimately filling a prescription and abusing the system to sell pills for profit is sometimes so thin as to be invisible.

So what's the difference between having the prescription pills you need and having enough prescription pills to open up an illicit pharmacy? Here's what you need to know about criminal prescription drug charges and penalties.

Elements of the Crime

Legal possession of prescription drugs becomes illegal possession of prescription drugs with the intent to distribute in three elements:

  1. Possession -- Prescription drugs, while legal, are still considered to be controlled substances, so possession can be illegal without a prescription or in quantities that exceed a valid prescription;
  2. Intent to Distribute -- While it's difficult to get inside the mind of an alleged drug dealer, an intent to distribute prescription drugs can usually be inferred when the person has more drugs than he or she would need for personal use; and
  3. Possession With Intent to Distribute -- Simple drug possession without the intent to sell them, or the idea to sell drugs without having the drugs themselves, don't, by themselves, constitute the crime of possession with the intent to distribute; prosecutors must prove that both conditions existed at the same time in order to convict someone.

Penalties for the Crime

Drug crime penalties can vary widely, depending on the jurisdiction, the amount of drugs involved, and the person's criminal history, among other factors. A conviction under federal controlled substances laws could land you in prison anywhere from 10 to 30 years (or more), depending on federal sentencing guidelines.

States can also vary their penalties and punishments depending on the type of drug and amount. For example, California's drug laws can include sentences from 1 year in jail up to five years in prison. While many factors can exacerbate sentencing, like whether you forged a prescription or were involved with others in a conspiracy to sell, there are some ways the penalties for possession of prescription drugs with the intent to sell can be lessened. Many states are setting up specialized drug courts that can help addicts and first-time offenders avoid long prison sentences.

If you've been charged with any drug crime, you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

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