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How do prior convictions affect those facing drug charges?

From hefty fines to prison time and a criminal record that will follow someone around for the rest of their life, there are a variety of serious consequences that can make life incredibly difficult for those who are charged with drug crimes.

Part of the effect of the War on Drugs, unfortunately, has been the passage of harsh, mandatory-minimum sentencing laws -- and the highest incarceration rate in the world.

What many of these laws do is increase the penalties for drug offenses based on a variety of factors, such as the quantity of the drugs involved and whether they were sold near a school or library.

Just as you might expect under any criminal law, one of those factors is the existence of prior convictions on your record. The impact of prior drug or violent crime convictions can substantially increase the penalty for a new conviction -- more than you might expect.

For drug offenses prosecuted by the federal government, you can find a series of charts on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's website defining the offenses and listing a penalty. For non-marijuana drug-trafficking offenses of a certain level for example, you could expect the following penalties upon conviction:

First offense: Up to 40 years in federal prison, with a minimum of 5 years. If the government can prove the drug trafficking directly led to death or serious bodily injury, the minimum sentence is 20 years with a maximum of life in prison. Additionally, you could be fined up to $5 million. If a conspiracy is charged, that fine shoots up to $50 million.

Second offense: Up to life in prison, with a mandatory minimum of 10 years -- double the first-offense penalty. Death or serious bodily injury gets you life imprisonment. Your fine could be as high as $8 million, or again $50 million for a conspiracy.

In other words, if you have no prior convictions and are federally charged with trafficking 500 grams of cut methamphetamine, a conviction will mean no less than 5 years in prison. If you were facing the same charge but had a prior conviction, however, a conviction means 10 years to life.

Whether federal agents or a local drug task force in Virginia targets you for prosecution, get legal help right away. You can't afford to become a statistic in the Drug War.

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