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Facing a drug conspiracy charge can have lifelong consequences.

Back in the heyday of the War on Drugs, Congress gave federal law enforcement and prosecutors far-reaching powers to find drug dealers and basically put them away for good. Many types of federal drug conspiracy charges carry “mandatory minimum” sentences, meaning that it’s not possible to avoid prison time if you are convicted.

The penalties for a drug conspiracy conviction are steep. They can range as high as 40 years in federal lockup.

And to prove a case, a prosecutor generally only has to show two things:

  1. There was an agreement between two or more people to violate a federal drug law, and
  2. Each conspirator knew of the agreement and joined it.

While it can feel like the deck is stacked against you, if you or someone you love is facing federal drug conspiracy charges, know that you have options available.

The laws are intentionally written broadly and harshly, and the federal government has virtually infinite resources to pursue drug conspiracy cases. However, a skilled federal criminal defense attorney can review the facts and evidence of your case and help you start fighting your federal drug conspiracy charges.

Types of federal drug conspiracy charges

As we mentioned above, in order to be convicted of a federal drug conspiracy charge, the prosecutor must show that you knowingly joined an agreement between two or more people to break a federal drug law.

Under 21 U.S.C. § 841 and 21 U.S.C. § 952, this usually breaks down to four different types of conspiracy:

  • Importing a Controlled Substance — This refers to bringing illegal drugs into the U.S.
  • Distributing a Controlled Substance — This involves delivering illegal drugs to someone else, even if there is no money exchanged. The law also specifies that this includes cases of “online pharmacies,” using the internet to deliver illegal or controlled substances to recipients under fictitious or fraudulent prescriptions.
  • Manufacturing a Controlled Substance — This involves any part of the production process of an illegal drug (growing, processing, extracting, etc.).
  • Possessing a Controlled Substance with the Intent to Distribute It — While the first three types were fairly straightforward, this one is where things get a little fuzzy. This involves cases where a person is arrested with an illegal drug, and the government can prove that he or she meant to distribute it. Prosecutors can use evidence collected at the time, like scales, baggies or the amount of drugs on the person at the time to build a case that the person meant to sell it.

What are the penalties for drug conspiracy charges?

The penalties for involvement in a drug conspiracy depend on the quantity of the drug involved.


Conspiracy involving 100kg or more of marijuana carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years, with prison times ranging as high as 40 years at maximum. For cases with 1,000kg or more, the mandatory minimum rises to 10 years. In situations where there is no alleged amount of marijuana, there is no mandatory minimum sentence.


For 5g or more, penalties will range between five and 40 years in prison. For 50g or more, the mandatory minimum sentence rises to 10 years, with a life sentence at maximum. Less than 5g carries no mandatory minimum, with a 20-year maximum sentence.

Cocaine and ‘crack’ cocaine

The five-to-40 years sentence applies to conspiracies involving 500g or more of cocaine or 28g or more of crack cocaine. The more serious 10-to-life sentence applies to cases involving 5kg or more of cocaine or 280g or more of crack cocaine.


Conspiracy involving 100g or more of heroin carries a federal prison sentence of five to 40 years. In cases where there is 1kg or more of heroin, the mandatory minimum sentence rises to 10 years.

Opioids and GHB “date rape” drugs

Particularly in recent years, the federal government has increased its enforcement around opioids like fentanyl and ketamine, as well as gamma hydroxybutyric acid (“the date rape drug”). Conspiracy involving these drugs does not carry a mandatory minimum, but can carry a sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison.

In addition to the penalties we mentioned above, federal law allows prosecutors to seek “enhanced” penalties for drug conspiracies in certain cases.

  • When someone dies or is seriously injured as a result of using the drug involved in the conspiracy.
  • When the person facing the drug conspiracy charge has a prior felony conviction for a drug offense.

Defenses against drug conspiracy charges

Drug conspiracy charges are serious, but depending on the facts of the case, it’s possible to have them reduced or beat them entirely.

When reviewing the facts of your case with you, your attorney will advise you on different drug conspiracy defense strategies.

Many times, it’s possible to challenge the evidence that the federal drug conspiracy prosecution brings to court by proving that it was illegally obtained, either by an illegal search and seizure or through entrapment. In cases where a judge rules that this has happened, this evidence can’t be shown to a jury, and cases can fall apart quickly.

In other cases, it’s possible to prove that you didn’t intent actually knowingly intend to join a conspiracy. If, for example, Tom and Pete decide over beers that they’re going to rob a bank, and Tom actually does it the following day, it doesn’t mean that Pete necessarily agreed to join a criminal conspiracy.

Or, even in other cases, it’s possible to prove that a conspirator withdrew from the conspiracy. If you can show that you were proactive in trying to end your involvement in a conspiracy — taking affirmative steps — then it can be possible to successfully defend your case in federal court.

The first step is talking with a criminal defense attorney with proven experience in federal drug crime cases. I am Robert M. Helfend. Based in the heart of Los Angeles and serving clients nationwide, I have been handling drug conspiracy cases for 30+ years and I am prepared to take yours. Call today for a free case evaluation — 800-834-6434.

Published March 24, 2019. Updated February 2, 2024.