When Do Drug Charges Become Federal?

If you’re charged with a drug offense, you might be wondering when a drug case becomes a federal issue. The short answer is drug charges can become federal at any time because all drug offenses can be both state and federal. The long answer is that it depends on numerous factors, which we will discuss below. Also, please remember that it is possible to be prosecuted by both the federal and state governments on separate occasions, without a double jeopardy violation.

Why does it matter if drug charges become federal?

It matters because there is a vast difference in length of sentencing between state and federal penalties. Federal punishments are almost always harsher than state punishments. For example, federal sentencing guidelines for the trafficking of 50 grams of methamphetamine has a minimum penalty of 120 months of incarceration and a maximum of life imprisonment. The exact same crime in North Carolina has a minimum sentence of 70 months and a maximum sentence of 84 months. As you can see, the difference between federal and state punishment can mean a matter of spending time in prison for seven years or for your entire life!

Five ways a drug charge can become a federal crime

There are five significant ways a drug charge can become federal:

  1. a federal informant named you
  2. a federal officer made your arrest
  3. the crime occurred on federal property
  4. the crime involved crossing state lines or out of the country
  5. the catch-all category.

This is not an exhaustive list; these are the most frequent means of turning a case federal that you should be aware of.

Before getting into details, let’s take a step back to gain some perspective. To best understand how drug charges become federal, it is important to have some background knowledge about criminal prosecution and jurisdiction in the United States. The federal government and state government both have the authority to prosecute criminals. Sometimes only federal or state has the authority, and sometimes they both have authority (i.e. jurisdiction).

States tend to prosecute more criminals than the federal government. However, states may only prosecute those crimes that have been committed within its borders. On the other hand, the federal government may prosecute in any territory of the United States. Additionally, certain crimes may only be prosecuted by the federal government.

(1) A federal informant named you; (2) a federal officer made your arrest; or (3) the crime occurred on federal property:

All three of these methods boil down to one question: whether federal resources (i.e. informants, officers, property) became involved in your case. When a federal officer, such as a Drug Enforcement Agent (DEA) or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, arrests you, it is very likely for the charge to become federal. It is the same effect if you commit a drug offense on federal property. Federal property is land owned or operated by the federal government, such as military bases, national parks, and federal prisons. Finally, an informant working with the federal government that named you will likely cause your case to become federal.

(4) The crime involved crossing state lines or out of the country:

This is a surefire way for a drug charge to become federal. For instance, if you are drug trafficking in multiple states. Unsurprisingly, drug trafficking charges take up most of the federal drug cases. Also, smuggling drugs into the United States from another country invites federal prosecution.

(5) The catch-all category:

This category covers all the other ways a drug charge can become federal. For instance, if a state lacks sufficient resources to handle a sophisticated crime, then federal assistance may be requested. It’s also possible for a federal prosecutor to request jurisdiction, perhaps to implement a crackdown in a specific area, or maybe for some other valid reason. Lastly, state and federal officials sometimes come to an agreement to have the state relinquish jurisdiction over to the federal government. The reasons behind these agreements also vary. It could be anything from lack of resources, to the federal government wanting jurisdiction over a low-level criminal, so they can catch a higher-level criminal.


To summarize, there are three important things to remember. First, you want to avoid a federal case because federal punishment often has a harsher penalty. Second, your case can turn federal in a multitude of ways, at any time, even without violating a specific federal law. Third, just because your case becomes federal does not mean it is an automatic loss. With diligent and hard-working attorneys, it is still possible for your case to have a positive outcome, even in federal court.

Joffe Law, P.A. provides aggressive, comprehensive representation against federal drug charges. With more than 50 years combined experience, our skilled criminal defense attorneys can help if you’ve been accused of a federal drug crime. Call us today at 954-723-0007 for a free consultation.