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DRUGS: The Differences Between Sales, Manufacturing, Trafficking and Distribution of Drugs

May 8th, 2006

By Mitch Nelson, Attorney at Law and Natalie Banach

$321 Billion. —That is the cursory estimate of the value of the international drug trade, according to the United Nations 2005 World Drug Report. What’s more, about 200 million people (5 percent of the population ages 15-64) are thought to have consumed illegal drugs at least once in the last year. It is undeniable that the global drug trade is large, widespread and deadly.

The high demand for illegal drugs and paraphernalia has led to the emergence of complex black markets all over the world. As with legal commerce, the illegal drug trade is multi-layered with manufacturers, processors, distributors, wholesalers and retailers all caught up in the mix. These international networks also deal in smuggling and trafficking.

Severity of Drug Offenses

In addition to being widespread and complex, however, the drug trade is also highly fragmented. It is the particular nature of production and manufacture of the different drugs that accounts for this. One of the most popular illegal substances, cannabis, is usually grown and sold locally. On the other hand, substances such as cocaine and heroin usually require either large swaths of land to grow or elaborate labs to manufacture. For this reason, large organized drug cartels are often behind the distribution of these drugs. The different offenses associated with the drug trade are as far-reaching as the trade itself. A drug offense can refer to anything from the possession, to the use, to the sale or to the furnishing of any drug or intoxicating substance that is prohibited by law. Most of these offenses are felonies and the penalties can be severe. Some of the factors that determine the severity of a sentence include the quantity of the drug, its classification and the purpose of the possession (for personal use or sale). In addition, factors such as weapons possession or having large amounts of money on one’s body, can also affect the ultimate punishment for a drug offense. In the United States, the foundation for the government’s fight against the abuse of drugs is the Controlled Substance Act. This law was put into affect in 1970 and is a consolidation of the various laws regulating the manufacture and distribution of narcotics, stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens, anabolic steroids, and chemicals used in the illegal production of controlled substances. The following article will outline the differences between the sale, manufacturing, trafficking and distribution of drugs.

Drug Manufacturing

The manufacture of an illicit drug or substance is defined as the either the preparation or completed acts to produce, propagate, compound or process that drug or substance. According to the Controlled Substances Act, this process can be done directly, indirectly, by the extraction of substances of natural origin, or by means of chemical synthesis. In addition, the term manufacturer refers to the person who manufactures the drug or substance. The manufacture of illegal drugs can be broken down into two classes: those extracted from plants and those synthesized through chemical processes. Drugs such as cannabis and cocaine, where farming is needed for mass production, fall under the first class. In the second class such as methamphetamines, the chemical processes associated with manufacture are more important. In general, penalties for the manufacture of illegal drugs or substances can include imprisonment, anything from a term of years to life, and substantial fines. The severity of the penalties can depend on the amount being manufactured, prior convictions and the type of drug being manufactured.

Trafficking of Drugs

The term drug trafficking refers to the illegal commercial activities associated with the participation in an illegal drug network. Often thought of as smuggling, drug traffickers seek to transfer illegal drugs and substances across jurisdictions, whether it is state or national borders. According to the U.S. Customs Services, each year about 60 million people enter the country via more than 675,000 commercial and private flights. In addition, another 6 million people come by sea, and 370 million by land. More than 90,000 merchant and passenger ships dock at U.S. ports. Amidst all this travel and commercial activity, drug traffickers conceal cocaine, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamines for the subsequent distribution of the drugs in U.S. neighborhoods. Penalties for the trafficking of illegal drugs and substances can include substantial fines in the millions of dollars, as well as imprisonment. Again, the severity of the penalties can depend upon whether or not death or serious injury occurs (in the case of “mules”), the type of drugs being smuggled, the amount and prior convictions.

Drug Distribution

The term distribution means to deliver (other than by administering or dispensing) an illicit drug or substance. In addition, delivery includes both the actual or attempted transfer of a controlled substance. The difference between the sale of an illegal drug and the distribution of an illegal substance is that with distribution the substance does not necessarily have to be sold to the user. In regards to the illegal drug trade, there are two primary means of distribution: a hierarchy and a hub-and-spoke layout. A hierarchal arrangement refers to a system in which the manufacturer uses their own men to smuggle, distribute and store the narcotics. A hub-and-spoke layout, conversely, uses local gangs and crime organizations to distribute and sell the drugs. At the center of the hub-and-spoke layout may be cartel, which dictates how the product of the manufacturers gets to the distributors. In general, penalties for the distribution of illegal drugs are severe and can include substantial fines and even life in prison with no parole. However, the penalty can depend upon prior convictions, the amount being distributed, the type of drug and the extent of the network.

Sale of Drugs

The legal definition of a sale entails an agreement where one party, the seller, gives full possession of something, in exchange for a certain amount of money, to the other party, the buyer, who agrees on that price. In terms of a drug offense, the “thing” being handed over will be the controlled or intoxicating substance. For a sale to be proven four elements need to be met. (1) The presence of a buyer and a seller, (2) the existence of the controlled substance to be sold, (3) an agreed upon price, (4) the consent of both parties and the performance of certain acts necessary to complete the transaction, such as the actual handing over of the object. In regards to the illegal drug network, the sale is often the ultimate transfer. It is the sale that transfers the illicit drug into the hands of the user.


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