In-Depth Look at the Laws Regulating Opioid Possession

With the opioid crisis mounting in North America, there has been growing pressure on law enforcement to address problems relating to the opioid epidemic. Opium and opiates have a long and complicated history within the United States. Federal and state laws have shifted over the centuries as opiates have taken on different forms as a substance as well as in the public eye. In this article, we’ll take a deep dive and look at overarching federal law as well as state laws and policies regarding possession of opiates. We will also outline some of the legal terms to know when it comes to offenses and sentencing.

Heroin was first derived from the opium poppy flower in the late 19th century by drug manufacturer Bayer. The same company later distributed the drug as a cough suppressant and pain reliever. In 1914, the federal government put the first heroin restrictions in place that limited the distribution of the drug. Nowadays, state laws vary in the severity of sentencing depending on state legislation. In 1986 lawmakers did enact a mandatory minimum sentencing guideline for drug offenses in an effort to crackdown on organized illegal distributors. Many states such as Kentucky have adopted some of these methods of harsh drug sentencing and carry some of the most extreme consequences. States like California, on the other hand, have some of the most lenient sentencing which focuses more on small fines and shorter jail time for drug possession to emphasize rehabilitation.

Crime or justice concept showing a gavel on a yellow background with a packet of drugs and a sign reading drug laws

Simple and Construction Possession

“Possession” is defined as having, owning, or controlling a thing, or in this case, a substance. Simple possession is a case in which a person knowingly has illicit opiates under his or her control. It might be stored somewhere on their person or belongings, but the person must be aware that they are in possession of the substance and that it is in fact illegal. If the individual receives a bag or jacket from a friend for example, and they are unaware that the drug is located on their person, they may avoid penalty. Constructive possession is the charge that’s applied against more broad instances. If the individual charged had possession or control over the substances at any time, even if the opiates are far from the individual in a suitcase, dresser drawer, or hotel room, warehouse, or other remote location. As long as the individual did at one point in time have possession and dominion over the substance, they can be charged with one or multiple counts of constructive possession.

Federal vs. State Offenses

When an illicit opiate possession case is brought to federal court (for example, heroin) an individual who has no prior record or convictions of narcotics can be sentenced for no more than 1 year in prison and/or up-to a minimum amount of $1,000. If the defendant has prior heroin convictions a prison sentence may range anywhere from 15 days to 2 years and penalties can be applied anywhere in excess of $2,500. If the case involves a defendant who was in possession of heroin with the intent to sell them greatly increases the time of incarceration and fines.

States differ individually when sentencing for possession of heroin according to specific state law. The costs incurred to the criminal justice system of each state due to the opioid epidemic can be steep. This just one part of the compound issue that’s currently putting pressure on government officials and lawmakers around the country. In Pennsylvania, the cost to the state as it relates to opioid-related arrests, court costs, and incarcerations have totaled $526 million over the course of 9 years. The calculation that determined this estimate involves data collected from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Treatment Episode Data Sets, and the Drug Abuse Warning Network. The number is reached by multiplying the number of opioid abuse cases based on national averages by the average per-person cost within the state criminal justice system. As the number of opioid arrests increases and incarceration times remain stagnant that estimated cost with undoubtedly grow as the problem remains unsolved. The exponential cost of inmates incarcerated on opioid-related charges means that the total cost on the state level will continue to climb.

Today, Americans are becoming addicted to both heroin and legal prescription opiates at alarming rates. The consequences of this epidemic are far-reaching and incalculable when it comes to governmental cost as well as the cost of lives and turmoil. Even as the opioid epidemic wrestles the problem by curbing the prescription of legal opiates, illegal synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, and hard drugs like heroin, are estimated to continue to increase. As new mandates have been put in place limiting the prescription of legal opiates the legal system seems to be unsuccessful at making an impact on the issue. Instead, new forms of treatment may be viable to help curb the issue at its root.