North Carolina has its own drug laws. They specify which drugs are illegal, which ones in what amounts are misdemeanors or felonies, what evidence can be used in court, and the possible penalties for those found guilty.
But the federal government also has its own laws addressing such questions and its answers are not the same as North Carolina’s. Possessing, selling, and being under the influence of certain drugs are illegal under both sets of laws at the same time, so what laws will apply if you’re charged with a drug crime?
Federal or state makes a big difference
The answer matters. Federal offenses are often much more harshly punished than state crimes.
For example, North Carolina’s maximum punishments for selling 10 pounds of marijuana are 8 months in prison and a fine of $1000. In contrast, the federal maximum punishments for selling the same amount are 5 years in prison and $250,000.
Federal cases for federal spaces
For crimes in general, most people are prosecuted at the state, county or municipal level. The federal government typically prosecutes cases only in certain other specific situations.
For example, crimes are likely to be treated as federal offenses if committed in certain physical places that are under direct federal authority or administration. If you’re caught selling drugs in a National Park, at the Eastern Cherokee Reservation or too near a military base, you’re probably in for a federal case. The same goes for carry weed on airline flights or into federal prisons or federal courthouses.
If you’re arrested for transporting drugs across state or international borders, it’s going to be a federal case.
The U.S. Constitution gives the feds exclusive authority over various specific matters like printing currency, immigration, patents, and the mail. Using the U.S. Postal Service to deliver a controlled substance even to your next-door neighbor is a federal crime.
If a crime rises to a certain seriousness, authorities may decide to “make a federal case of it.”
Various offenses familiar as tools of organized crime are sometimes handled by the feds. Forgery, money laundering, extortion, blackmail, bribery and others may be charged as the federal crime of racketeering. Flirting with any of these crimes while handling illegal drugs puts you into dangerous territory.
Theoretically, federal law always prevails
When states and the federal government both want a case, the U.S. typically wins. But the federal government generally only takes cases in which its interests are directly involved.
Defendants sometimes believe their state is violating rights guaranteed to them by the federal government and they may seek federal intervention. However, a defendant charged by North Carolina with selling 10 pounds of marijuana may not want to ask the federal government to get involved.