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There is no doubt that the way North Carolina classifies and assigns penalties to charges can be confusing. Case in point: we have 10 different felony classifications!

So if you are caught with illegal drugs, you might be surprised by the charges that are ultimately levied against you. How is this decided? Which drug crimes are felonies, which are misdemeanors, and how does the type of drug affect sentencing? Could they have gotten your charges wrong? Can you fight for different charges?

Let’s break down North Carolina drug crime laws to answer these questions and more.

How Our State Organizes Drug Crimes

North Carolina has six categories in which it classifies controlled dangerous substances (CDS). Drug/CDS charges mainly depend on the type of drug and how much of that drug is involved in the crime in question.

There are three types of drug crimes at the state level – but it doesn’t stop there. The federal court may take over a drug crime at any point if it is at interest to them, and federal charges follow their own unique rules. For now, though, let’s stick to our state.

Schedules. One of the ways that drug crimes are organized in North Carolina is by schedule. Our state defines six different schedules of drugs.

  • Schedule I is reserved for the most addictive and dangerous controlled substances, and includes heroin, ecstasy, and opiates. From there, drugs get less addictive and dangerous, and therefore yield less severe penalties in court.
  • Schedule II drugs are less addictive and some have accepted medical uses. Schedule II drugs include cocaine, raw opium, methamphetamines, and codeine.
  • Schedule III drugs include ketamine, anabolic steroids, and some barbiturates.
  • Schedule IV drugs include Valium, Xanax, and clonazepam.
  • Schedule V drugs include certain over the counter cough medicines that contain codeine.
  • Marijuana and its associated substances are in their own category: Schedule VI.

Misdemeanor Drug Crimes. If you are caught possessing a small amount of most of the controlled substances listed above (and you have not been convicted on drug charges before), you will find yourself facing misdemeanor charges. The only exception to this rule is getting caught with Schedule I and some Schedule II drugs.

Misdemeanor drug crimes carry sentences of up to 45 days in prison.

Felony Drug Charges. Getting caught in possession of a Schedule I drug (as well as some Schedule II drugs, including methamphetamine precursors), is considered a felony.

Additionally, if you are caught with enough of any drug for law enforcement to reasonably suspect that you are making or selling that drug, your charge might be bumped up to a felony.

Manufacturing and distribution (sale) of drugs are felonies as well. Depending on the schedule of drug involved, you could face a number of different charges:

  • Manufacturing Schedule I or II CDS – class H felony
  • Manufacturing Methamphetamine – class C felony
  • Distributing Schedule I or II CDS – class G felony
  • Manufacturing Schedule III, IV, or V CDS – Class I felony
  • Distributing Schedule III, IV, or V CDS – Class H felony


Felony Drug Trafficking Charges. Drug trafficking refers to the manufacturing, distribution, or movement of a certain weight of drugs.

This type of crime is often charged at the federal level, but it doesn’t have to be. If the CDS does not cross state or national borders, you may face state felony drug trafficking charges instead.

Under North Carolina law, based on the type of drug involved, trafficking charges could land you in prison for anywhere from 25-279 months. That’s just over two years on the low side to more than 23 years maximum.

If a large amount of drugs moves across state or national borders, or if they simply decide that they are interested in the case, the federal court often steps in and takes over.

A federal drug trafficking conviction comes with mandatory minimum sentences, which include 5 years in prison for a first offense to life in prison for your second or third conviction, depending on the circumstances.

For more information on drug crimes in North Carolina, contact a Greensboro defense lawyer.

About the Author:

Jan Elliott Pritchett
 is Managing Partner at the Law Firm of Schlosser & Pritchett and one of North Carolina’s top rated criminal defense attorneys. With a practice dedicated 100% to litigation, Mr. Pritchett protects the legal rights of clients who have been charged in federal and state criminal matters, as well as DUI/DWi, motor vehicle accidents, personal injury, and traffic violations. In practice since 1995, Mr. Pritchett has earned a reputation as a highly talented and fearless lawyer, being listed among the state’s “Legal Elite” and recognized as one of the Top 100 DWI Lawyers in North Carolina by the National Advocacy of DUI Defense.  He currently serves as the Co-Chairman of the North Carolina State Board of Legal Specialization, Criminal Law Specialty, and Vice-Chairman of the North Carolina Bar Association, Criminal Justice Section.

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