Drug Trafficking

The term “drug trafficking” refers to the process by which individuals provide illegal drugs to the public. For example, drug trafficking meaning refers to all aspects of the illegal drug trade, from the growing or processing of illicit drugs, to their distribution and sale. Someone who cultivates heroin from opium plants, for instance, may be just as guilty of trafficking as the dealers who sell that finished product to the public. To explore this concept, consider the following drug trafficking definition.

Definition of Drug Trafficking


  1. The process by which individuals grow, manufacture, and sell illicit drugs to the public.


1495–1505         Middle French   (trafique)

What is Drug Trafficking?

Drug trafficking is the process by which individuals manufacture and distribute illegal drugs throughout the country. An example of drug trafficking is someone making methamphetamines in his basement. Another example of drug trafficking is that person then going out and selling his homemade meth to the public. Every part of the process involved in making and distributing illicit drugs falls under the banner that is drug trafficking.

Global Drug Trade

The global drug trade relies on several routes by which to supply the United States with illicit drugs. Countries included in the global drug trade include Africa, South America, and Asia, and individuals largely trade drugs like fentanyl over the “dark web,” a version of the internet that requires specific software in order to access. Venezuela is one of the most powerful players in the global drug trade, funneling illegal drugs to the U.S. and Europe through places like the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America that originated in Columbia.

Difference Between State and Federal Drug Charges

The main difference between state and federal drug charges is that punishments for federal drug charges are generally more severe. Typically, the law treats federal drug charges as felonies, which means that an individual can receive a hefty fine and long prison sentence if convicted. To better illustrate the difference between state and federal drug charges, consider the following: drug trafficking is a federal crime, whereas simply possessing the drug is a state crime.

Some drug crimes may be state or a federal crimes, depending on the severity of the offense. For instance, the location in which a person possesses a drug may mean the difference between state and federal drug charges. If he has a large amount of the drug on his person, for instance, then in the eyes of the law he is in possession of the drug with intent to sell, which is a federal crime. If, however, the police find a lesser amount of drugs in his car during a traffic stop, this does not mean he intended to sell them, only use them. He may only receive a state charge, or even a misdemeanor.

Ways Drug Charges Become Federal

There are four ways drug charges become federal. A drug charge can become a federal charge at any point, because drug charges can be both federal and state crimes. However, what follows are the four typical ways drug charges become federal:

  • An informant in a federal case implicates the individual.
  • A government officer makes the arrest.
  • The crime takes place on federal property.
  • The crime involves the crossing of state lines or leaving the country.

There are a number of other ways drug charges become federal. There are certain cases that only states can handle, and others that only the federal government can handle. Some cases are up for grabs, meaning that either the state or the federal government can handle it. It all depends on the particular details of that crime.

Penalties for Drug Trafficking

The penalties for drug trafficking all depend on the severity of the crime committed. For instance, the penalties for drug trafficking are more severe if the person has, say, 200 grams of cocaine on him versus less than a gram. While both crimes are felonies, he faces significantly more prison time and higher fines the more cocaine he possesses.

The penalties for drug trafficking also increase if the police find a firearm on the individual in addition to drugs. Some states have “mandatory minimums” on the sentences they can hand out. So, if they have a mandatory minimum for both gun charges and drug charges, the individual may be looking at double the length of his prison term and double the fines for one combined offense.

Examples of Drug Trafficking

Drug trafficking examples typically take the form of more illicit, or scheduled, drugs, like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines. However, drug trafficking examples can also concern prescription drugs that people tend to abuse, like Xanax, Adderall, oxycodone and Vicodin. In fact, prescription drugs are some of the pricier drugs out there. While legal for use by the person with a prescription, selling those pills to others is quite illegal.

Trafficking Statistics

According to trafficking statistics, the five states that saw the most trafficking in 2016 were Arizona, California, Texas, and New Mexico. Drug trafficking examples that included methamphetamines took the top spot, with over 33 percent of trafficking imports that year. Here are some additional trafficking statistics:

  • Between 2011 and 2015, the number of people convicted of heroin trafficking increased by about 50 percent.
  • During this same time frame, the amount of heroin seized by law enforcement at the Mexican border more than doubled.
  • In 2016, most of drug traffickers (about 85 percent) were men around the age of 36 years old.

However, despite these not-so-promising trafficking statistics, efforts to curb heroin production have increased as well. For instance, the Mexican Government reportedly eradicated over 21,000 hectares of opium poppy fields in 2014, compared to about 14,500 hectares the year before. (A hectare is equal to about 2,500 acres of land.)

Drug Trafficking Example Involving a Fatal Overdose

The case of Burrage v. United States (2013) presented an example of drug trafficking in which a person succumbed to a fatal overdose. In April of 2010, Marcus Burrage sold heroin to Joshua Banka. Banka then used the heroin that night, along with a cocktail of drugs, and his wife found him dead in their bathroom the following day.

After Banka’s wife identified Barrage in a line-up, the police charged him with the distribution of heroin causing death. The medical and toxicology reports showed that the heroin did, in fact, contribute to Banka’s death. However, what they could not determine was whether he would have lived if he had not taken the heroin.

Conviction and Appeal

Burrage received a conviction for the trafficking charge of the distribution of heroin causing death, which carried a 40-year prison sentence. Burrage appealed the conviction, arguing that the law required the government to prove that the heroin caused Banka’s death and did not simply contribute to it. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit held that the evidence presented was enough to convict Burrage and upheld his conviction. Further, the Court noted that expert testimony showed that Banka would not have died if he had not had the heroin in his system.

U.S. Supreme Court

Burrage took his case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which then had to decide whether the presence of heroin contributing to Banka’s death should be enough to let Burrage’s conviction stand. Ultimately, the Court decided that, because Banka had several drugs in his system at the time of his death, the heroin could not be an independent cause of death on its own. The Court ultimately reversed Banka’s conviction and remanded the case to the lower court.

Said the Court:

“We hold that, at least where use of the drug distributed by the defendant is not an independently sufficient cause of the victim’s death or serious bodily injury, a defendant cannot be liable under the penalty enhancement provision of 21 U. S. C. §841(b)(1)(C) unless such use is a but-for cause of the death or injury. The Eighth Circuit affirmed Burrage’s conviction based on a markedly different understanding of the statute, [citation omitted], and the Government concedes that there is no ‘evidence that Banka would have lived but for his heroin use,’ Brief for United States 33. Burrage’s conviction with respect to count 2 of the superseding indictment is therefore reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Appellate Court – A court having jurisdiction to review decisions of a trial-level or other lower court.
  • Felony – A crime, often involving violence, regarded as more serious than a misdemeanor. Felony crimes are usually punishable by imprisonment more than one year.
  • Misdemeanor – A criminal offense less serious than a felony.
  • Prison – A building in which people live as a punishment for a crime or while awaiting their trial.