High powered pain pills are everywhere. One would be hard pressed to open a medicine cabinet in almost any household and not find some form of pain medication. Medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, dihydrocodone, codeine and tramadol are prescribed for a seemingly endless list of maladies. In addition to being readily available, each of these pills also contains opium or an opiate derivative. In this earlier blog I wrote about the devastating affect North Carolina’s opiate trafficking laws can have on someone found in a possession of as few as 5 pills. Trafficking convictions carry mandatory active prison sentences. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a young life ruined when a teenager sneaks a few of grandma’s pain pills out of the cabinet to hand out at a party.
In the face of these draconian pill trafficking laws, many North Carolina lawyers are searching for creative approaches to the problem in hopes of keeping young folks from serving 15 year prison terms over a handful of pills. This week the North Carolina Supreme Court shot down one of those creative approaches.
A crash course in North Carolina’s trafficking laws is needed to understand this week’s decision. Our trafficking laws are based entirely on the weight of drugs. Our law assigns weight categories to each of the different schedules of drugs and a person found in possession of that particular weight of drugs can be charged with trafficking. For instance, a person in possession of 10 lbs. of marijuana can be charged with class H trafficking in marijuana. (For more on North Carolina’s marijuana trafficking laws read this blog). The bottom level of opiate trafficking requires a drug weight of at least 4 grams. So, when it comes to trafficking, WEIGHT IS EVERYTHING.
This week the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in State v. Ellison that for trafficking purposes, a drug’s weight is measured by weighing the entire pill. Mr. Ellison was stopped in a traffic stop and found to be in possession of 90 dihydrocodeinone and 80 pills of alprazolam. He was later convicted of trafficking and sentenced to 225-279 months in prison and given a $500,000 fine. Mr. Ellison’s attorneys argued that the weight should only include the active ingredients in the pills and not the many fillers that make up the majority of the total weight of the pill. The Supreme Court shot down this argument and held that it was the legislature’s obvious intent that the entire weight of each pill should be considered in trafficking pill cases.
Obviously, the Defendant in this case was found in possession of a very large number of pills. But, with this ruling a person is at risk of being charged with trafficking with a much smaller stash. In fact, 5 10mg percocets expose a person to trafficking based on this new ruling. As little as 33 (not even a 1 months supply) of such pills would expose that same person to the 279 months Mr. Ellison received. That, is a tough pill to swallow.