Federal Drug Offenses

Background on Federal Drug Offenses

While snooping around the Internet the other day, I came across an article by Eric E. Sterling on the PBS website.  Although this article is somewhat dated, it provides an excellent primer on how Congress created our drug laws.  His article also raises several topics that are important for people facing federal criminal charges.  So let’s get started.

Purpose of Post

Clients charged with federal drug offenses frequently asked me the following questions:  (1) What are mandatory minimum-sentences; (2) What are sentencing guidelines; and (3) how can a drug offender avoid mandatory minimum sentences.  I’d like to discuss these topics with this post.

drugsMandatory Minimum Sentences

Mandatory minimum sentences are the minimum number of years that a Defendant serves if convicted for certain offenses.  In drug offenses, they are typically between 5-10 years in federal court.  The mandatory minimum depends on the quantity and type of drug involved.  Mandatory minimum sentences combined with sentencing guidelines serve as the backbone and template that court’s use to determine what sentence to give a defendant.

Sentencing Guidelines Created To Reduce Unfair Disparity

Congress created the Sentencing Guidelines in the 1980’s to ensure fairness in federal sentencing.  Congress wanted to ensure defendants with similar offense and offender characteristics received a substantially similar sentence regardless of who the sentencing judge was in the case.  Unfortunately, the guidelines have become complex and often turn on technicalities.

For an excellent discussion on the history and issues created by the guidelines, read Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s article on the subject.

Drug Guidelines

Sentencing guidelines provide a drug-quantity table that helps answer the question:  “How much time am I looking at for my federal drug charge?”  The other factor that courts use to calculate a projected sentence is the offender characteristics, i.e., a defendant’s prior criminal history and background.  Once the offense level and criminal history are scored, then you can get a general idea of where you fall on the sentencing table.

This, of course, is a very simplified overview of guideline calculations.  There are multiple factors that will affect the final sentence that are beyond the scope of this article.  [Click here for a primer on drug sentencing–but be aware the article is hyper-technical.]

Exceptions to Mandatory Minimum Sentences

If you are charged with a federal drug offense that carries a mandatory minimum sentence–there are generally two exceptions to a mandatory minimum sentence under 18 USC 3553(e)&(f):  (1) Safety Valve; and (2) Substantial Assistance.   Click here for a chart that shows the differences between safety valve and substantial assistance.    Each provision has different requirements and qualifications.  These are the two ways to get under the mandatory minimum sentence in federal court.  They each have different eligibility requirements that you should discuss with your defense attorney.


If you are charged with a federal drug offense, it is important that you speak with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney to discuss your options.  In addition to working out an agreement–you also have the right to plead not guilty and request a jury trial to contest the charges against you.

Genaro R. Cortez
Phone:  210.733.7575

Article Name
Federal Drug Offenses
Federal Drug Offenses carry mandatory-minimum sentences that lead to harsh punishments. However, defendants have options to avoid unduly harsh sentences.

Author: Genaro Cortez

Hi! I am Genaro Cortez, a DWI Attorney in San Antonio, Texas. This blog provides information on frequently asked questions about DWI charges and criminal defense.

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