If you are caught transporting illegal drugs, whether you are charged with a state or federal crime depends on where you’re caught and whether interstate commerce or the importation of drugs into the country were involved.

Transporting a controlled substance into the United States or across state lines is a federal crime known as “drug smuggling.” The laws regarding the transport of controlled substances as well as travelling with controlled substances, including medications, are complex and — at times — confusing.

Below is an overview of some of the most important information about drug smuggling and transporting controlled substances. If you’ve been charged with a federal drug crime or have questions about drug smuggling or a related offense, attorney Robert M. Helfend and his team are happy to assist you. 

Transporting a controlled substance into the U.S. or across state lines: federal drug smuggling laws

It is a federal crime to transport an illegal controlled substance across state lines or into the U.S. from another country. Smuggling drugs into the U.S. is also sometimes referred to as “drug importation.” Controlled substances are those which are listed under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 and include substances which the government has deemed dangerous or are likely to be misused or abused. Substances that have a legitimate use in medical treatment, such as narcotic painkillers, may also be considered controlled substances, but can be legally used or possessed in some cases, for example, with a prescription from a licensed physician.

Some of the most common drugs involved in drug smuggling cases include:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Methamphetamine, and
  • Marijuana (cannabis)

While laws regarding the use and possession of cannabis may vary from state to state, the federal government considers it an illegal Schedule I controlled substance. Transporting cannabis into the United States or across state lines is a federal crime.

A defendant suspected of drug smuggling may be charged under a number of specific U.S. codes, depending on the circumstances of their case. Some examples include:

  • 21 U.S. Code § 952 – the import of any Schedule I or II controlled substance and any Schedule III, IV, or V narcotics into the United States
  • 21 U.S. Code § 825 – transport of a controlled substance (including a legal drug) into the United States (does not include legal drugs in proper containers with proper labeling)
  • 21 U.S. Code § 955 – possession of a controlled substance on a vessel or aircraft

Drug smuggling vs. drug trafficking 

Drug smuggling is sometimes confused with drug trafficking. Simply put, drug trafficking involves the manufacturing and distribution of drugs, whereas drug smuggling involves the transport of illegal drugs from one place to another. It is important to note that you don’t need to traffic or intend to traffic drugs in order to be guilty of smuggling. Even if the drugs in your possession are strictly for personal use, you can still be accused of smuggling by transporting them across the border or state lines. 

Transporting a controlled substance in California – Health & Safety Code § 11352

In a case where a controlled substance is transported but stays within state lines, it is most likely to be handled by the state court in which the offense took place. Under California Health & Safety Code § 11352, it is illegal to move a controlled substance from one point to another, for the purpose of sales, within the state of California.

Health & Safety Code § 11352 is always charged as a felony crime that cannot be reduced to a misdemeanor. Penalties for violating California Health & Safety Code § 11352 include:

  • A fine of up to $20,000
  • Up to 9 years in  jail
  • Felony probation

Laws regarding the transportation of medication

Because some pharmaceuticals are controlled substances, there are specific laws regarding the transport and importation of medications. Medications that may be legal in another country may not be legally brought into the United States if the U.S. government believes that they have a high potential for abuse or misuse.

These drugs will be confiscated and the person transporting them may face charges, even if they have a prescription from a physician in another country. Some examples of pharmaceutical drugs that are illegal to bring into the U.S. include:

  • GHB
  • Rohypnol, and
  • Fen-Phen

Travelling with medications

If you are travelling from another country into the United States and need to travel with legally prescribed controlled substances such as sleeping pills, antidepressants, or tranquilizers, you must do the following:

  • Carry the drugs in their original containers, as you received them from your doctor or pharmacy
  • Carry only the quantity of medication that you would reasonably need for personal use 
  • Carry a prescription or written statement from your physician explaining that the substances are necessary to maintain your health while travelling and are being used under medical supervision
  • Declare all substances you are travelling with to customs and border protection officials 

A person who doesn’t possess a prescription for a controlled substance that is legal in the United States may bring up to 50 dosage units of the medication into the United States. However, it is not recommended to possess or travel with controlled substances that have not been prescribed to you. 

Federal drug smuggling penalties and sentencing

Penalties for federal drug smuggling charges vary depending on:

  • The type of drug involved
  • The quantity of drugs that were transported
  • The defendant’s criminal record

Generally speaking, a drug smuggling conviction will result in a mandatory federal prison sentence and fines up to $5 million for an individual. 

Some of the most common federal drug offenses related to smuggling are:

  • Drug trafficking – 21 U.S. Code § 841
  • Possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute – 21 U.S.C. § 841
  • The killing of another person in connection to a drug offense – 21 U.S.C. § 848(e)(1)(A)
  • Use of a communications facility in the commission of a drug crime, including the use of mail or cell phones – 21 U.S.C. § 843

Related offenses may be charged instead of or in addition to drug smuggling charges, depending on the individual statutes and the facts of the case.

If you’ve been accused of transporting controlled substances into the country or across state lines, you may be able to have your charges reduced or dropped with the use of a strong legal defense. A qualified federal criminal defense attorney can advise you on the best possible defense strategy for you case and represent you throughout the legal process. 

Depending on the facts of your case, you and your attorney might be able to demonstrate that:

  • You unaware that you were in possession of illegal drugs,
  • You were unaware that a substance in your possession was illegal, or
  • You were mistakenly identified as a perpetrator in the alleged crime

If your constitutional rights were violated by law enforcement officials during an investigation, you can defend yourself against drug smuggling charges by providing evidence of the violation. You may be able to have your charges dropped if:

  • Law enforcement conducted an unlawful search and seizure or illegally obtained evidence to use against you
  • You were stopped, searched, or arrested without probable cause 
  • You confessed to a crime as a result of coercion by law enforcement

While these are some of the most common defenses used to fight drug smuggling charges, your lawyer might suggest another strategy that is more likely to find you the best possible outcome. 

If you or a loved one have been accused of transporting controlled substances and need legal advice or a defense attorney with experience working federal cases, the Helfend Law Group here for you. In more than 40 years of practice, Mr. Helfend has successfully defended thousands of clients in both California state and federal cases. Federal drug smuggling charges are serious, and you don’t need to face them alone. Call us today for a free case evaluation – 800-834-6434.

Published September 6, 2018. Updated March 28, 2024.