Crystal Meth: Possession, Precursors, and Penalties

Possession of meth or its precursors can result in federal or state criminal charges.

By , Attorney

Methamphetamine—also known as "crystal meth"—is a highly addictive drug. The federal drug schedules consider meth a schedule II controlled substance. Unlawful possession, sale, or manufacturing of meth carries both federal and state criminal penalties. It's also a particularly dangerous drug, causing many health and safety problems for those who use or manufacture it.

Over the last three decades, the United States has battled repeat surges of meth abuse. In response, the federal government and states have passed laws carrying increasingly severe penalties for persons convicted of selling (distributing), manufacturing, and trafficking meth. When it comes to possession penalties, states have taken various approaches. Some states have lowered possession penalties based on the view that personal use often means addiction. Other states have not gone in this direction, and tough-on-crime laws remain on their books.

This article will review penalties for possession of meth and its precursors. Penalties for sale, manufacturing, and trafficking of meth carry much stiffer penalties, plus numerous enhancements when crimes endanger children, life, or property.

What Is Crystal Meth?

While many drugs such as cocaine and marijuana are derived from plants, meth is made from chemicals. It's often made into a white powdery or rock-like substance that can be smoked, snorted, or injected. Because of its rock-like appearance, meth is often referred to as "crystal meth." Meth is also called many other names, including "ice," "crank," "speed," and "glass."

The manufacturing process is quite dangerous, as it involves the use of explosive and noxious chemicals that also have severe environmental impacts. Homes, apartments, and other structures that have been used as meth labs need extensive detoxification and often are simply torn down because it's cheaper than remediating the property.

What Are Meth Precursors and Paraphernalia?

Besides outlawing meth possession, most jurisdictions make it illegal to possess the chemicals used to manufacture meth (known as "precursors"). Precursors to meth include ephedrine, pseudoephedrine, phenylpropanolamine, and norpseudoephedrine. Many states and the federal government criminalize possession and retail purchases of precursors involving certain quantities. For instance, federal law makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly purchase more than nine grams of meth precursors within a 30-day period. State regulations and penalties vary.

Most states also make it illegal to possess the paraphernalia used in the sale or manufacturing process, such as scales or balances, or used to smoke or inject meth, such as glass pipes. Check out our article on Possession of Drug Paraphernalia to learn more.

What Constitutes Possession?

To convict someone of possessing meth, the prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knowingly possessed the drug.

Knowingly means the person knew the substance was a drug and that they possessed it. For instance, if someone slipped a packet of drugs into another's bag, the bag owner didn't knowingly possess the drugs.

Possession can refer to a defendant's actual or constructive possession of the drug. Actual possession means the person has the drugs on them (such as in their hands or a coat pocket). If the drugs aren't on a person—say they're in a drawer or trunk of a vehicle—a prosecutor needs to show the defendant had constructive possession of the drugs. Constructive possession requires the prosecutor to prove the defendant knew about the drug and had "control" over the drug. Control might be having the key to the car trunk or having access to the drawer where the drugs were found.

Crimes and Penalties for Possession of Crystal Meth

The penalties for meth possession vary, depending on whether the case was prosecuted under federal or state law. A conviction can result in punishments ranging from a fine or a misdemeanor jail term to a lengthy prison sentence for a felony conviction.

Federal Penalties for Simple Possession of Meth

Federal law makes knowingly or intentionally possessing meth a misdemeanor for a first offense, which carries a penalty of up to one year's incarceration. Subsequent meth possession offenses, however, carry felony penalties with mandatory minimum sentences. A second offense means a minimum of 15 days and up to two years' incarceration, plus a minimum $2,500 fine. A person convicted of a third or subsequent offense faces 90 days to three years in prison and a minimum $5,000 fine.

State Penalties for Simple Possession of Meth

State penalties for meth vary drastically from violations and low-level misdemeanors to felonies. Some states follow the federal model that makes simple possession a crime regardless of the amount or type of drug involved. Other states base penalties on the drug amount, type, or both. Most states carry enhanced penalties for repeat convictions.

For example, Oregon makes it a Class E violation (fine-only) to possess less than two grams of meth, and a Class A misdemeanor for possession of amounts over two grams and up to 10 grams. In California, a person who unlawfully possesses meth faces a one-year jail sentence. Texas law provides felony-level penalties for meth possession, starting at a state jail felony for amounts less than one gram and increasing from there. Indiana makes it a Level 6 felony to possess less than five grams of meth, but the penalty increases to a Level 5 felony if the person has a prior drug conviction.

Defenses and Immunity From Prosecution

Depending on the facts in a case, a defendant may be able to assert a defense to possession charges or avoid having charges filed in the first place.

Defenses. Common defense strategies to challenge drug possession charges include:

  • seeking to exclude evidence of the drugs based on an unlawful search or seizure, and
  • challenging the prosecution's case by claiming the drugs weren't the defendant's (lack of knowledge or control over the drugs).

Good Samaritan laws. In an effort to combat drug overdoses, some states have implemented Good Samaritan laws to protect individuals from certain drug charges when they seek medical assistance for themselves or others. These laws are meant to encourage people to call for help without fear that they'll be arrested or charged with drug possession. State differ in how these Good Samaritan protections work. Some allow a defendant to raise this protection as a defense, while others provide immunity from prosecution for certain possession charges.

Consult a Lawyer

Being charged with a meth possession crime can be a serious matter. Consult with an attorney having knowledge of the drug laws and penalties applicable in your particular case. A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney can evaluate your case and any possible defenses you might have.

(21 U.S.C. §§ 841, 844; Cal. Health & Safety Code § 11377; Ind. Code § 35-48-4-6.1; Or. Rev. Stat. §§ 475.894, .898; Tex. Health & Safety Code § 481.115 (2021).)

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