What is Possession with Intent to Distribute?

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  • Written By: M. Lupica
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 02 January 2020
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Possession with intent to distribute is a serious criminal charge that combines the elements of possession of an illegal item with a further criminal intent. People who knowingly possess an illegal item — usually a controlled substance — may have charges of possession of an illicit substance brought against them. Intent to distribute can be found through a close look at the circumstances surrounding the possession. The penalties for this crime vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but will usually involve jail time.

The first requirement of a possession with intent to distribute charge is that the party knowingly possesses an illicit item. Typically, in order to possess an item, the person must have had the item within his or her control long enough to recognize the illegal nature of the item and have a chance to dispose of it. The fact that the party must “knowingly” possess the item implies that he or she must be aware that the item is in his or her control and know that it is illegal in order to be charged with possession. Purposely avoiding identifying the object is not an acceptable defense.


In order to charge someone with this crime, the court must find that the person who possessed the illegal item intended to offer it to other people, for sale or otherwise. This intent to distribute may be inferred based on the various circumstances. For instance, if someone is arrested while in possession of several small individually bagged portions of an illegal drug, then it may be assumed that those bags were for sale and the person may be charged with possession with intent to distribute. The circumstances do not have to be that obvious that the person is intending to sell the illicit object. Simply by finding unusually large amounts of an illicit substance can imply intent to distribute.

Typically, anyone found guilty of this charge will be required to serve jail time for his or her offense. The penalty will also depend on the seriousness of the illicit item possessed by the guilty party. For instance, someone found guilty of possessing cocaine with the intent to distribute it would generally get a more severe sentence than someone guilty of possession with intent to distribute marijuana. Usually, the in-court strategy for anyone charged with this crime is to bargain the charge down to just possession, as the penalties are much lower and typically do not involve jail time.


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Post 3

@pastanaga - But making the drug laws harsher and harsher hasn't stopped that kind of thing from happening and I don't think it ever will. If anything, it drives up the prices of drugs and makes them more worth the risk of selling them.

I think that the drug laws in this country need a serious overhaul. We should look to what actually works as a deterrent in other countries and try to make our system more like theirs.

Post 2

@umbra21 - I don't really sympathize with that though. Drugs are illegal and they can ruin people's lives. If someone is stupid enough to do drugs, the least they can do is make sure they don't have enough around to carry this kind of charge.

Drug possession laws are pretty fair, I think. I mean, it doesn't take much of a drug to make quite a bit of money and they really need to crack down on the sellers in order to get to the root of the problem. There are people out there with no qualms about selling hard drugs to kids and they should be stopped.

Post 1

The problem is that sometimes people will assign an arbitrary amount to this law and will stick to it even beyond any kind of reason.

For example, if someone is growing two marijuana plants in their house, in some places that's considered enough for possession with intent to sell. It doesn't matter if the person happens to be sick and is obviously just planning to use the plants for their own benefit. It doesn't matter if they have no prior convictions or anything.

At that point they are at the mercy of the justice system and there are far too many people who have been put into jail for this, basically because the judge was feeling cranky that morning.

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