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What counts as “drug trafficking” under South Carolina law?

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Answered by: Ryan L. Beasley

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The term “drug trafficking” is misunderstood. It does not necessarily involve drug deals, smuggling or transporting drugs. Charges of drug trafficking are primarily based on the amount (by weight) of the substance or substances in question. The rationale is that if you possess a large quantity of a drug, you are likely planning to distribute it for profit.

There are three basic tiers of drug charges: (a) simple possession, (b) possession with intent to distribute and (c) trafficking. There are also different tiers within drug trafficking, with the highest quantities punishable by decades of imprisonment.

How much of the substance triggers drug trafficking charges?

The magic number is different for each controlled substance. For example, the threshold for trafficking charges is 10 pounds of marijuana, but 10 grams of cocaine, 10 grams of methamphetamine and 4 grams of heroin. Then there are graduated penalties for greater amounts, all the way up to 10,000 pounds of marijuana or 15 kilos of cocaine. These are examples of what constitutes drug trafficking under South Carolina statute. The baseline amounts and tiered penalties may vary under federal law.

Whether state or federal jurisdiction, the weight determines the charges. Other evidence such as scales, large amounts of cash or observed drug transactions, may support the prosecution’s case but are not strictly required for a conviction.

What is the penalty for drug trafficking?

Drug trafficking is always a felony offense. The penalties depend on the type of drug and any prior convictions. For example, a first offense of trafficking in marijuana carries a sentence of 1 to 10 years in prison, but a second offense is 5 to 20 years. Trafficking in cocaine carries a sentence of 3 to 10 years for a first offense and 5 to 30 years for a subsequent offense. And so on. Drug trafficking charges are usually subject to a mandatory minimum prison term that is not eligible for suspension or probation. The greater the quantity the higher the penalties, all the way up to a life sentence for repeat offenders involved in a huge drug bust.

What determines state or federal charges?

In general, federal drug charges carry greater penalties. Federal trafficking charges may apply if the drugs crossed state lines, if a federal agent made the arrest or if the arrest resulted from a federal informant or surveillance. Sometimes local authorities transfer cases to the feds for prosecution when they lack the resources or expertise. It is also possible to face state and federal charges.

Seek an attorney who has relationships with law enforcement and prosecutors at both the state and federal levels. In the early stages, it may be possible to get charges dismissed or downgraded. If the case proceeds to plea negotiations or trial, you need an experienced drug crime defense lawyer who can contest the government’s case. Defending against trafficking charges often centers on Fourth Amendment issues such as warrantless searches, traffic stops without probable cause or police misconduct. Because of the devastating punishment for conviction, it is crucial to prepare for the possibility of trial. That includes following your lawyer’s advice to the letter.

Disclaimer: The answer is intended to be for informational purposes only. It should not be relied on as legal advice, nor construed as a form of attorney-client relationship.

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