Methamphetamine (also known as "crystal meth") is a highly addictive drug. While methamphetamine may be used legally when obtained with a prescription, it is otherwise considered a "controlled substance," whose possession, sale, or manufacture is against the law (see 21 U.S.C. § 844(a)). Meth is a particularly dangerous drug, causing many health and safety problems in those who use or manufacture it.
Over the last two decades, meth use has increased dramatically, resulting in what is now referred to as a "meth epidemic." In response, the federal government and the states have passed laws carrying increasingly severe penalties for persons convicted of offenses involving illegal possession, sale, or manufacture.
While many drugs such as cocaine and marijuana are derived from plants, meth is made from chemicals. It is 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 refurbishing.
Besides outlawing meth possession and manufacture, most jurisdictions make it illegal to possess the chemicals used to manufacture meth (known as "precursors"). It is also illegal to possess the paraphernalia used in the manufacturing process, such as scales or balances.
Defendants can be convicted of possessing meth (either for personal consumption or for sale) if a prosecutor proves simply that they knew the substance they possessed was meth. A prosecutor also does not bear much of a burden to convict a person of possessing precursors for the purpose of manufacturing meth. By way of example, under federal law, defendants can be convicted when the prosecutor convinces the jury that they knew (or had reasonable grounds to conclude) that the items they possessed would be used to make meth (see 21 U.S.C. § 841(c)).
When charged with simple meth possession, defendants sometimes defend themselves by arguing that they had a valid prescription for the meth, or that it belonged to someone else. When charged with possession with intent to sell, a common defense is that the defendant possessed the meth simply for personal use.
The penalties for meth possession, sale, and manufacture vary, depending on where the case was prosecuted (federal charges carry the same penalties, no matter where in the country the prosecution occurs, but each state has its own sentencing provisions). A meth conviction can result in punishments ranging from a fine, a misdemeanor jail term, or a lengthy prison term for a felony conviction. The greater the amount of meth possessed (usually measured in terms of weight), the longer the potential prison sentence tends to be.
Even greater penalties apply if a person is convicted not simply of possessing meth, but of possessing it with the intent to sell or traffic it. For example, under federal law, a first conviction for simple meth possession can result in "a term of imprisonment of not more than 1 year" (21 U.S.C. § 844(a)). In contrast, federal law mandates a prison term - even for first convictions - of at least 5 years for anyone convicted of possessing 5 grams of meth with the intent to distribute it, and at least 10 years for possessing 50 grams for distribution purposes (see 21 U.S.C. § 841(a), (b)(1)(B)(viii)).
Being charged with a meth crime described here is a serious matter. It is quite advisable to consult with an attorney having knowledge of the meth laws and penalties applicable in your particular case. A knowledgeable criminal defense attorney will have a sense of how to convince either a prosecutor or a jury that a defendant possessed meth simply for personal use, or possessed it unintentionally. That could result in lesser punishment or even dismissal of a case.