Consequences of selling drugs illegally in the U.S.

An opinion piece on the dangers of plea bargains and early release of drug traffickers from retired DEA Special Agent and drug diversion expert, Warren Rivera.

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Drug dealing is punished with long sentences

The majority of America’s prison population is comprised of people who committed drug-related crimes. People who deal drugs for a living know they are breaking the law and will likely end up in prison for their illegal activity. Drug dealers are in the business simply to make money and could care less about the damage their actions cause to society. So, is selling drugs worth the risk of long-term prison sentences?

We’ll explore the facts here. Then, we invite your questions or comments in the section at the end. In fact, we try to respond to all comments personally and promptly.

Is substance abuse causing all drug-related crime and overcrowded prisons?

According to statistics from the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, the majority of inmates are in prison, at least in large part, because of substance abuse. Statistics show:

  • 80% of offenders abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • Nearly 50% of jail and prison inmates are clinically addicted at the time of arrest.
  • Approximately 60% of individuals arrested for most types of crimes test positive for illicit drugs at arrest.

Statistics further show that imprisonment has little effect on drug abuse:

  • Approximately 95% return to drug abuse after release from prison.
  • 60-80% of drug abusers commit a new crime (typically a drug-driven crime) after release from prison.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, between 1998 and 2012, the number of drug offenders in federal prisons grew 63% and made up about half (52%) of the federal prison population at year end 2012. Almost all (99.5%) of these offenders were serving time for drug trafficking.

Are mandatory minimum prison sentences a deterrent to drug dealing?

The recidivism rate for released prisoners is high. Those prisoners who are released early are likely to be rearrested. A study by the National Institute of Justice tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The researchers found that:

  • more than half (56.7 %) were rearrested within the first year of release
  • 76.9 % of those rearrested were drug offenders

How many more victims will be affected by their renewed drug sales until they are rearrested?

To date, President Obama has commuted the sentences of 774 individuals which is more than the previous eleven Presidents combined. On August 3, 2016, the President commuted the sentences of 214 federal prisoners who were listed as non-violent drug offenders. In some cases, they were serving life sentences. A large percentage of convicts whose sentences were commuted possessed and were charged with carrying firearms in furtherance of drug trafficking.

How can a convicted drug dealer who was armed at the time of arrest be considered a non-violent offender?

Plea bargains get violent drug traffickers back on the street

Another misleading fact about those so called non-violent offenders is that many cases end up being plea-bargained. The defendant is allowed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for a reduced sentence. This saves time and money that would normally be devoted to a jury trial. Drug traffickers who were armed at the time of arrest are sometimes able to plea bargain and have the gun charges dropped in exchange for a guilty plea.

The point is that drug trafficking is a dangerous business that always has the potential to end in violence. This is why so many drug dealers carry weapons and also why the sentences imposed on the dealers are so stringent.

Why do the majority of released drug traffickers return to a life of crime?

Based on my professional experience as a career DEA agent, I have personally conducted and supervised investigations targeting repeat offenders. Some of these cases involved new drug trafficking charges against individuals who spent as much as twenty years in prison for the same offense.

I believe they return to a life of drug trafficking and crime because they see it as the easiest opportunity to make quick money and they are willing to risk their freedom for it. Essentially starting over in society as a convicted felon in a low level work-release job doesn’t satisfy a drug trafficker’s insatiable desire for the finer things in life. They tend to take the shortest and most risky route to financial independence.

President Obama has high hopes for the futures of those drug offenders he released early from prison. Unfortunately, the odds are they will continue to be substance abusers who will ultimately revert to drug trafficking because it is their easiest path.

About the Author: If you like to learn more about how to prevent the diversion of pharmaceuticals or would like to receive training from retired DEA Special Agent and drug diversion expert W. Rivera, please visit the website or
Reference Sources: NADCP: The Facts on Drugs and Crime in America
Pix 11: Complete List of 214 Federal Prisoners granted commutation by  President Obama
NIJ: Recidivism
CNN: Obama issues 214 commutations for drug offenders
USA Today: Obama commutes record total 774 sentences
About the author
Warren Rivera is a retired Assistant Special Agent in Charge from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Mr. Rivera is an experienced public speaker, trainer and an expert in the diversion of pharmaceutical controlled substances. Mr. Rivera currently owns Training Idea, LLC, a private consulting firm that provides training on DEA matters to the healthcare industry, law enforcement and the community.
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