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An Overview of Drug Crime Penalties in New Jersey

March 21, 2024 Uncategorized

An Overview of Drug Crime Penalties in New Jersey

New Jersey has some of the toughest drug laws in the country. As the opioid epidemic continues to impact communities across the state, lawmakers have responded by enacting harsher penalties for drug offenses in recent years. This article provides an overview of the current penalties for various drug crimes in New Jersey.

Possession of CDS

Simply having a controlled dangerous substance (CDS) in your possession can lead to criminal charges in New Jersey. The specific penalties depend on the type and amount of drugs, along with your criminal history. A first-time offense for marijuana possession can potentially lead to 6 months in jail plus fines and other penalties. Meanwhile, possession of drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and prescription opioids often carries much stiffer penalties of several years in prison.

The degree of the possession charge also plays a major role in determining penalties:

  • Disorderly Persons Offense – Up to 6 months in jail and a max fine of $1,000
  • Fourth-Degree Crime – Up to 18 months in prison and a max fine of $10,000
  • Third-Degree Crime – 3-5 years in prison and a max fine of $35,000
  • Second-Degree Crime – 5-10 years in prison and a max fine of $150,000
  • First-Degree Crime – 10-20 years in prison and a max fine of $200,000

A third-degree possession charge applies to Schedule I-IV drugs over 1 ounce. First-degree charges are reserved for the most serious offenses involving large quantities of dangerous drugs.

Distribution and Intent to Distribute

Selling CDS or possessing drugs with intent to sell leads to even greater penalties. A conviction for drug distribution or “possession with intent” can result in lengthy prison sentences along with 6 figure fines.

Like possession offenses, the seriousness of the charge and penalty is tiered by degree:

  • Third-Degree – 3-5 years in prison and a max $35,000 fine
  • Second-Degree – 5-10 years in prison and a max $150,000 fine
  • First-Degree – 10-20 years in prison and a max $500,000 fine

The specific charge often depends on the quantity and type of drugs. For example, selling over 5 grams of fentanyl can trigger a first-degree distribution offense with up to 30 years in prison.

School Zone and Public Housing Enhancements

Any drug offense committed within 1,000 feet of a school zone leads to even tougher penalties under New Jersey law. These “drug-free school zone” charges typically raise the degree of the offense by one level. So a third-degree crime becomes a second-degree crime, and so on. That translates to longer potential prison terms. Similar sentencing enhancements apply to drug crimes committed in or near public housing complexes.

Juvenile Penalties

Minors charged with drug offenses may enter the juvenile justice system rather than facing the same criminal penalties as adults. However, New Jersey still takes a relatively tough approach when it comes to juveniles and drugs. Possible penalties can include fines, probation, community service, counseling, out-of-home placement, and even incarceration in juvenile detention facilities.

Driver’s License Suspension

On top of fines and imprisonment, those convicted of drug possession, distribution, or other drug crimes often face driver’s license suspension. For example, a third-degree drug conviction typically results in a 6-month to 2-year license suspension. Suspension periods up to 20 years can apply in cases of repeat drug offenses.

Expungement Difficulties

While New Jersey does allow record expungement for some crimes after 10 years, it can be quite difficult to clear a drug conviction from your record. The waiting period may need to be extended to 15 years or longer depending on factors like the degree of the offense. And individuals convicted with intent to distribute drugs may be barred from expungement altogether. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help navigate the complex expungement process.


Facing drug charges does not necessarily mean pleading guilty and accepting the consequences. An aggressive defense lawyer may be able to get charges reduced or even dismissed by challenging issues like unreasonable search and seizure, improper testing procedures, inaccurate weights, and more. Specific drug addiction treatment programs could also lead to charges getting dropped. Of course, the best outcome is avoiding arrest and prosecution entirely.


Due to strong public pressure and ongoing issues surrounding drug abuse, sale, and addiction, New Jersey continues to come down hard on drug crimes. Simply possessing a small amount of drugs for personal use can potentially lead to years behind bars along with huge fines and other penalties. Distribution offenses are viewed as even more serious and can result in very lengthy prison sentences.

If you or a loved one faces drug charges in New Jersey, understanding the applicable laws and penalties is critical. But the assistance an experienced criminal defense attorney provides can be even more important. With sound legal advice and advocacy in your corner, it may be possible to avoid conviction altogether or at least mitigate the penalties if convicted. So be sure to seek help from a lawyer you trust.


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