Differences Between Felony and Misdemeanor Drug Charges

  • Both misdemeanor and felony drug charges carry significant penalties in Arizona, and knowing which type you may face can help you better prepare for the legal issues following a drug-related arrest. Depending on the type of substance, the amount discovered at the time of arrest, and the other elements involved in the arrest, a drug arrest can lead to various possible penalties. The arrested individual’s criminal history may also influence sentencing.

    Misdemeanor vs. Felony

    Misdemeanors generally include less severe criminal offenses, but this does not mean the penalties are automatically light. There are multiple degrees of a misdemeanor, with a misdemeanor of the first degree being the most severe. Penalties can include jail time of a year or more, fines in the thousands of dollars, and required attendance in drug and alcohol education courses and community service.

    Lesser misdemeanors of the third degree may not involve jail time, but a record of multiple third-degree misdemeanors will likely lead to harsher sentencing in subsequent arrests. Additionally, it is also possible for an arrested individual’s criminal history to cause a first-degree misdemeanor to escalate to a felony offense.

    Felony drug charges are the most severe drug charges possible and can easily lead to several years in state or federal prison. Felony drug offenses typically involve large-scale drug operations like trafficking networks or maintaining illegal drug manufacturing facilities. An individual may also receive felony charges for using a deadly weapon in connection with the drug-related activity, killing another person for drug-related reasons, or harming others under the influence of certain drugs.

    Arizona Drug Laws

    Arizona has some of the most severe drug charge penalties in the United States. Most of these charges pertain to dangerous drugs, narcotics, and marijuana. Although medical marijuana is now legal in Arizona for patients with qualifying conditions, it remains illegal for recreational use or purchase from private individuals. Marijuana possession of fewer than two pounds is a class 6 misdemeanor in Arizona. If kept for personal use, the individual may see a charge reduction down to a class 5 misdemeanor. If the individual intended it for sale, he or she will receive felony charges. Fines can be $2,000 or more, or three times the value of the substance, and jail time can reach nearly four years if the individual has prior convictions.

    The penalties for narcotics and dangerous drugs are much more severe. Possession of narcotics or dangerous drugs is a class 4 felony, but if the arrested individual has no prior drug convictions, it is possible to receive a class 1 misdemeanor instead. Fines are no less than $2,000 or three times the value of the substance, whichever is greater. A narcotics-related arrest can lead to as much as 15 years in prison with two prior convictions.

    Arizona Drug Classification

    Arizona sets threshold amounts for different weights of drugs that lead to mandatory prison sentences.

    • The threshold amount for heroin is one gram.
    • The threshold amount for cocaine is nine grams.
    • For PCP, the threshold amount is 50 milliliters or four grams.
    • The threshold amount for all types of methamphetamine and amphetamines is nine grams.
    • For marijuana, the threshold amount is two pounds.

    To qualify for mandatory minimum sentences with a threshold amount of any of these drugs, the prosecution must prove the drug in question is indeed a narcotic or illegal drug and the suspect knowingly possessed the substance.

    There are a few defenses available to an individual facing drug charges in Arizona. Some of the most common include lack of knowledge of a drug’s existence and illegal search and seizure. The police must have probable cause to conduct a traffic stop or arrest of a pedestrian. Medical use and approved religious use are also viable defenses. Medical marijuana patients can carry up to 2.5 ounces of medical cannabis purchased from a licensed dispensary, and religious users of peyote can also avoid drug charges if they can prove the peyote was for religious and personal use and posed no threat to the public.

    If you face drug charges in Arizona, a criminal defense attorney can help you better understand the charges against you, the potential penalties for conviction, and your available defenses.