Possession of Cocaine
Possession of cocaine is a serious charge. In fact, the penalties for possession are generally much steeper than penalties for other drugs. A defendant charged with possession of cocaine should know how they can be charged, the penalty ranges for a possession of cocaine charge, and common strategies for reducing the effect of the charges.
How States Categorize Possession of Cocaine Charges
Most states categorize possession of cocaine charges first by weight. Less than a gram, which is smaller than a sugar packet, will result in the lowest level of felony. From there, the weight categories are broken into degrees. The higher the weight, the higher the degree of felony a person can be charged with. Most defendants only worry about the weight of the substance, however, packaging and purity can also influence how a person in charged. Cocaine can be distributed in several forms, such as in crack rocks (pieces of cocaine) or in powdered form in small baggies. If a defendant possesses several small baggies or several crack rocks that look like they have been prepared or packaged for distribution, then the prosecution may increase the punishment range of the charge by alleging that the person possessed the cocaine with intent to deliver. Some states call this with intent to distribute.
Another factor that can influence a cocaine charge is the purity of the cocaine. When a package of cocaine is first introduced into the “supply chain” of the drug world, it has a higher degree of purity. As the cocaine is distributed, it is “cut” or diluted by dealers who add powdered ingredients (such as baking soda) to the powdered cocaine to increase the bulk of the product and thus turn a higher profit.
Because a higher purity level is at least some indication that someone is closer to the original source of distribution, the purity level can increase a defendant’s sentencing. Purity level can also influence whether or not the federal government will take the charges. The higher the purity level of the cocaine, the more likely a defendant is to be charged in the federal system, rather than the state system.
How Penalties are Determined in Possession of Cocaine Cases
How a defendant is charged will influence the penalty ranges. The lower level punishments for a mere possession of cocaine charge can range from automatic probation up to five years in prison. The punishment ranges for possession of cocaine for large amounts increase incrementally by weight and range from five to ninety-nine years. Some states will enhance the minimum ranges or deny parole eligibility depending on aggravating circumstances. Circumstances that can aggravate a cocaine charge include possession within a drug free zone (like around a school), having a firearm, having a child present when the drug was consumed, and the purity level of the cocaine. The penalties for possessing cocaine with intent to distribute are even higher than those for straight possession. Many states will increase the felony level up to the next higher felony category.
Strategies for Reduced Sentences in Possession of Cocaine Cases
Options for a defendant charged with possession of cocaine will vary depending on the facts of their arrest and their criminal history. If a defendant has been caught red-handed, the first major strategy would be to try to reduce the level of charges. Being a cocaine user or addict will garner more favorable sentencing options than that of a cocaine dealer. Cocaine dealers are usually charged with higher degree felonies.
A second strategy is to develop a history of cocaine addiction. This tactic is more successful in some jurisdictions than others, but more and more jurisdictions are offering treatment alternatives to addicts. Even if a defendant is sentenced to prison time, many states offer good conduct bonus points for defendants who enroll and successfully complete treatment programs. Some states provide probation and drug treatment or drug diversion in lieu of jail or prison time. This can even benefit a defendant who is selling the drug if a defendant can show that he was also using the drug. In some states, such as California, a defendant charged with even a serious felony may recieve a suspended prison sentence if they agree to undergo drug rehabilitation. If the defendant fails treatment or fails to successfully complete probation, the suspended prison sentence may be imposed automatically by a judge.
The third strategy is to see if a defendant can influence where their charges will be handled. If a defendant possessed a large quantity of cocaine and had an extensive history, some states will increase punishment ranges up to life in prison. However, the federal system can actually result in a shorter sentence with downward departures, or reduced sentences, for cooperative efforts. Depending on a defendant’s history and access to information, they may obtain a better plea bargain by getting a federal prosecutor interested in their case.
Regardless of whether a defendant is charged with possessing a small or large quantity of cocaine, the charge should be taken seriously as a felony level offense. Cocaine is historically and consistently recognized as a bad drug which every state seeks to regulate. How a defendant handles his first possession of cocaine charge can influence their criminal history, rehab options, and future sentencing options, if they should ever be charged again.