The federal government has strict laws regarding the import of illicit drugs and controlled substances into the U.S., including prescription medications. The Controlled Substances Import/Export Act governs the importation and exportation of controlled substances, which are substances and chemicals the government regulates as far as manufacturing, possessing, and distributing.
If someone is caught or suspected of trying to bring controlled substances into the United States without proper authorization, they can face serious federal charges that can result in harsh penalties. Virtually anyone can face charges for federal importation of drugs, including doctors, pharmacists, and other health care professionals.
If federal authorities arrest you or are investigating you for unlawful importation of drugs or controlled substances, you need to consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney immediately to gain a full understanding of the charges against you and an explanation of your rights and options to help you develop an effective defense.
Federal Laws Regarding Importation/Exportation of Drugs
Subchapter II of the Controlled Substances Import/Export Act prohibits importing or exporting any amount of unlicensed, unauthorized, or illegal substances for both commercial purposes and personal use.
It also prohibits improper labeling and packaging of drugs, and it is a crime to import controlled substances in commercial containers without the proper authorization, documentation, seals, and warnings. This includes trying to hide unprescribed controlled substances or illegal drugs in a legitimate prescription pill bottle you have for another medication.
The law covers a wide range of drugs and substances, and the government maintains a schedule that classifies drugs into five categories based on their potential for abuse and their accepted medical use. They are:
- Schedule I – Heroin, LSD, marijuana, ecstasy, and peyote
- Schedule II – Methamphetamine, cocaine, Adderall, Vicodin, and methadone
- Schedule III – Testosterone, ketamine, anabolic steroids, and Tylenol with codeine
- Schedule IV – Xanax, Valium, Ambien, and Tramadol
- Schedule V – Lyrica, Robitussin AC, and Lomotil
Other substances include flunitrazepam (roofies) and GHB (the “date rape drug”), along with substances and mixtures that could be turned into narcotics, such as cocoa leaves, poppy straw, and crude opium.
The law prohibits importing drugs by means of transshipment or in-transit shipment, as well as having the drugs in your possession if you are aboard any aircraft or vessel arriving in the United States. It is also against the law to manufacture or distribute Schedule I and II narcotics if you intend to import or know the drugs will be imported into the U.S.
Other Drug Crimes
As with any type of drug charge, you can face additional charges depending on the types and amounts of drugs you have in your possession or are suspected of importing, as well as whether you are involved in an illegal drug operation.
If the government suspects you of importing large quantities of illegal drugs or narcotics or unauthorized prescription medication, you could face charges for drug trafficking along with unlawful drug importation. You can also face RICO charges and other serious federal charges, such as money laundering if prosecutors can link you to being part of a criminal enterprise. Additionally, you can face charges for drug conspiracy, drug smuggling, and drug distribution. Convictions of any of these types of related crimes have their own penalties, which may be imposed in addition to the penalties you receive for unlawful drug importation.
Penalties for Federal Importation of Drugs
The penalties for the federal importation of drugs follow mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug crimes defined by federal law. They are based on the types and quantities of substances/drugs involved, and they are:
- Minimum five-year prison sentence, with a possible maximum of 40 years, for unlawfully importing 100 or more grams of heroin, 500 or more grams of cocaine, or 100 or more kilograms of marijuana. You may also face fines of up to $5,000,000, along with four to eight years of supervised release.
- Minimum 10-year prison sentence and up to life for unlawfully importing one or more kilograms of heroin, five or more kilograms of cocaine, or 1,000 or more kilograms of marijuana. Fines can be as high as $10,000,000, with up to 10 years of supervised release.
Additionally, it is unlawful to import/export certain chemicals for the purpose of manufacturing a controlled substance, and maximum prison sentences can range from 10 to 20 years.
Since the law covers such a broad area of substances that include legal medication and those used for other legitimate purposes, the federal government does make exceptions. The Attorney General may exempt parities from prosecution for the following reasons:
- Special scientific purposes (limited to non-narcotic Schedule I and II controlled substances)
- Controlled substances in your possession for your own medical use, provided you have lawfully obtained the substance and have proper documentation
- Substances that may be a part of Schedules III-V but do not have depressant or stimulant effects on the central nervous system.
The Attorney General may grant other exceptions on a case-by-case basis, and you may have to register to receive exemption coverage depending on your situation and the amount and type of substances you want to import. If in doubt, you should consult an attorney who has extensive knowledge of federal drug laws.
Defenses for Federal Importation of Drugs
In order to prosecute you for the importation of drugs, the government will have to show that you knowingly and intentionally imported controlled substances into the U.S. You need to work with an attorney who can help you devise the strongest defense strategy possible and some potential strategies may include:
- You didn't know you had controlled substances in your possession.
- You had a legitimate prescription.
- The substances did not cross U.S. borders.
- Someone forced you to commit the crime.
You may also have a defense if authorities obtained their evidence through illegal searches and seizures or if you were a victim of entrapment by law enforcement. Furthermore, the government may have made mistakes in handling the evidence, or they could have a flimsy case in trying to prove you were the one who actually committed the crime.
Get Help from an Experienced Federal Defense Attorney
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has defended many clients in New Jersey district court on federal importation of drugs charges and other federal offenses. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation.