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What are the possible outcomes for drug possession?

If you are arrested on drug charges, you will no doubt hear a wide range of “helpful advice” from people. Everyone has a story about a brother or cousin or friend who got busted.

But there is a lot of misinformation out there. The outcome depends on many factors – the facts of the case, the judge, the prosecutor … and your legal representation. Here are some of the ways it could shake out.

How drug charges might be resolved

Drug cases are fact-specific. Two of the most important factors are the type of drug and the amount. Marijuana is typically a misdemeanor. Schedule I substances like heroin or prescription opiates are usually charged as felonies. At a certain amount, the charges escalate to possession with intent to distribute even if there is no other evidence of drug dealing.

But let’s say it’s a simple possession charge for cocaine, another Schedule I controlled substance.

  • Dropped charges – The prosecutor may decide there is insufficient evidence to go forward. At a later date, you can petition to have the drug arrest expunged from your file.
  • Dismissal – The court throws out the charges because of some flaw in the state’s case. Ideally the charges are dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning you cannot be re-arrested later.
  • Diversion – Pre-trial intervention (PTI) is available to non-violent first-time offenders, including drug crimes. You are technically convicted of the crime. But if you adhere to all of the court’s conditions, from random drug tests to community service, the conviction is dismissed and removed from your record.
  • Drug court – If you qualify for drug court, this special program addresses the underlying drug addiction. Like a PTI, you plead guilty but instead of jail you enter an 18-month program that includes counseling, drug screens and check-ins. If you complete the program, the charges are dismissed and eligible for expungement.
  • Plea bargain – You plead guilty to a lesser crime or a different offense, in exchange for dropping more serious charges and/or receiving a more lenient sentence. You have a criminal record, perhaps only a misdemeanor, but you avoid the worst penalties.
  • Conviction – You enter a guilty or “no contest” plea in hopes that the court will show mercy. Or you are found guilty by the judge or jury at trial. You have a felony drug conviction on your record, along with the criminal penalties.

The jurisdiction (state or federal) also has a bearing on the possible outcomes. The process is different in federal court, from rules of evidence to mandatory minimum sentences if convicted.  

If you ever face drug charges …

The sooner you consult an attorney, the better. The attorney can intervene proactively and determine the best approach to your case. By waiting to see what happens or making statements to police, you may hurt your case or take options off the table.


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