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DEA Defense Lawyers Explain the Most Common Drug Charges They Defend

DEA Defense Lawyers Explain the Most Common Drug Charges They Defend

As a DEA defense lawyer, I’ve seen just about every type of drug case you can imagine. From small-time possession charges to major trafficking operations, defending folks accused of drug crimes is a huge part of my practice. In this article, I want to walk through some of the most common drug charges we see, and how a good defense lawyer like myself can approach fighting them.

Simple Possession

Let’s start with simple possession – that is, when someone is busted with a small, user-amount of an illegal drug. This could be a little baggie of cocaine, a couple ecstasy pills, or a small amount of weed. Believe it or not, possession charges make up the bulk of drug cases. They’re also some of the easiest to defend against.

The main strategy here is to argue that the drugs weren’t actually my client’s. If they were found in a car, for example, we can argue they belonged to someone else who had access to the vehicle. Or if they were found in a home, we can claim my client didn’t know about them or that they belonged to a roommate/partner/family member. Raising reasonable doubt about ownership is usually enough to beat a basic possession charge.

We also look closely at how the drugs were obtained. If the police didn’t have proper probable cause for a search, or didn’t follow protocol during the arrest, we can often get the entire case thrown out due to an illegal search. Sloppy police work can absolutely sink a possession case.

Intent to Distribute

A step up from simple possession is possession with intent to distribute – also known as PWID. This applies when someone has a larger quantity of drugs on them, often separated into smaller baggies or pills. Here, the allegation is they planned to sell or distribute the drugs versus just using them personally.

To beat a PWID charge, we attack the “intent” part. I’ll argue that my client is simply a heavy user with a high tolerance, not a dealer. Or I may claim they bought in bulk to get a better price, not to resell. We can often introduce evidence of addiction like prior drug convictions or rehab stints to show personal use rather than distribution. It’s a tougher case than simple possession, but still very winnable with an experienced lawyer.

Marijuana Trafficking

In many states, illegal trafficking charges kick in at a relatively low threshold – sometimes just a pound or two of marijuana. And feds may charge trafficking for even smaller amounts being transported across state lines. These cases call for getting creative.

A common defense is claiming my client was “just the driver” who didn’t know the full extent of what was in the vehicle. I’ll argue they were simply paid to drive a shipment, without knowledge of the contents. We also leverage the ongoing decriminalization debate to cast doubt on the morals of the case. Juries are sometimes reluctant to convict for weed trafficking as attitudes toward marijuana evolve.

There are also procedural defenses around how evidence was obtained, chain of custody issues, or technicalities around how the drug weight was calculated. The key is scrutinizing the arrest details to find leverage to get charges dropped or reduced.

Cocaine Trafficking

Cocaine and crack trafficking charges are a different animal compared to marijuana. Juries are much less sympathetic to those caught moving large quantities of cocaine, which can trigger stiff mandatory minimum sentences. As a defense lawyer, my job here is to humanize my client.

I’ll dig into their background to find mitigating factors – a difficult childhood, mental health issues, substance abuse problems, etc. I also work to minimize their role – portraying them as a low-level courier or driver rather than a major player. The goal is to make the jury see them as a person who made a mistake versus a dangerous drug kingpin.

If I can negotiate an early plea deal and cooperation agreement, I can sometimes help my client avoid a lengthy trafficking sentence. But once large-scale cocaine charges are filed, the odds are stacked against us. The best strategy is negotiating aggressively to reduce charges whenever possible.

Drug Manufacturing and Production

When a lab, grow operation, or other large-scale drug production enterprise is busted, multiple serious charges often result. Manufacturing meth, growing weed, producing hallucinogens – these are severe felonies with steep penalties.

As always, the first line of defense is attacking the legality of how evidence was gathered. If we can get a search warrant invalidated or show shoddy police practices, the entire case may get tossed. Beyond that, the strategy depends on the specifics of the case.

With meth labs, we may argue my client was coerced or threatened into participating against their will. With marijuana grows, we may claim it was for medical rather than recreational distribution. The arguments have to get creative and be tailored to the unique circumstances at hand.

But make no mistake – once a large lab or grow operation is busted, the defendants are facing an uphill battle. The best approach is to cooperate early and leverage information to reduce charges and sentences.

Prescription Drug Crimes

The opioid crisis has led to a crackdown on illegal use and distribution of prescription medications. Common charges here include doctor shopping, fraudulent prescriptions, and selling Rx drugs on the black market.

With doctor shopping cases, we scrutinize the evidence that a client intentionally sought out multiple doctors to obtain excess pills. Patients often see multiple doctors just to find one who will adequately treat their pain – not to deceive and collect extra meds. It comes down to proving intent.

With fraudulent scripts, we look closely at handwriting samples and expert testimony. If a document examiner can’t conclusively match a script to our client, that creates ample room for doubt. We also argue that someone else could have stolen their prescription pad and forged scripts without their knowledge.

And with Rx trafficking charges, we argue that my client believed they were legitimately selling their own excess medication, not illegally distributing. It’s all about creating uncertainty around intent to weaken the prosecution’s case.

Federal Drug Crimes

Many drug crimes get charged at the federal level, which carries harsher sentences and more severe consequences than state charges. Common federal drug cases involve distribution and trafficking networks spanning multiple states.

The key in federal cases is negotiating with prosecutors ASAP to seek a plea deal and cooperation agreement. The federal system is designed to incentivize defendants to provide information on larger operations and targets higher up the chain. The intel my client provides can dramatically reduce their eventual sentence.

Federal drug cases often boil down to a cost-benefit analysis – weigh the potential penalty versus the reduction that cooperation can earn. I advise my clients to think hard about having their sentence cut in half or more by working with the DEA and federal prosecutors. The incentives are there for a reason.

The Importance of a Strong Defense

As you can see, defending drug charges requires deep knowledge of criminal law, investigative work, negotiation skills, and the ability to craft a compelling narrative. Too often, public defenders are overburdened with high caseloads that prevent them from mounting an aggressive defense.

Private defense attorneys have the resources and time to build the strongest case possible. We dig for every advantage, hold prosecutors accountable, and fight for the best possible outcome. If you or a loved one are facing drug charges, I encourage you to invest in experienced legal representation – it can make all the difference.

Drug accusations can carry life-changing penalties that devastate families and futures. But a great lawyer levels the playing field, and in many cases, can achieve charge dismissals, acquittals, or dramatically reduced sentences. Don’t leave the fate of your case in anyone else’s hands.


Defense strategies informed by case law and sources such as:

U.S. Department of Justice on possession elements

Lawyers.com on PWID charges

NOLO on defeating illegal search charges

FindLaw on state vs federal trafficking

DEA on prescription drug crimes

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