Drug War

Almost Every Crime Involving Drugs Now Gets Sentenced as "Drug Trafficking"

It doesn't mean what you think it means


Federal drug laws create a labeling problem. When you hear the term "drug trafficker," you might think of Pablo Escobar or Walter White, but the reality is that under federal law, drug traffickers include people who buy pseudoephedrine for their methamphetamine dealer; act as middleman in a series of small transactions; or even pick up a suitcase for the wrong friend. Thanks to conspiracy laws, everyone on the totem pole can be subject to the same severe mandatory minimum sentences.

To the men and women who drafted our federal drug laws in 1986, this might come as a surprise. According to Sen. Robert Byrd, cosponsor of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the reason to attach five- and ten-year mandatory sentences to drug trafficking was to punish "the kingpins—the masterminds who are really running these operations", and the mid-level dealers.

Fast forward twenty-five years. Today, almost everyone convicted of a federal drug crime is convicted of "drug trafficking", which more often than not results in at least a five- or ten-year mandatory prison sentence. That's a lot of time in federal prison for many people who are minor parts of drug trade, the vast majority of whom are men and women of color.