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Las Vegas, Nevada Drug Laws: The Definitive Guide

Las Vegas, Nevada Drug Laws: The Definitive Guide

The purpose of this guide is to provide you with information on Nevada's drug laws. Whether you are currently being charged, are interested in Nevada's laws for controlled substances, or are just curious, this guide is for you. This guide does not get into the weeds on each drug law, because the laws often contain several different tiers for different weights, previous charges, and schedules. Each law will be given its own section in time.

Instead, this guide focuses on providing you with information about how Nevada's drug laws and the criminal justice system in Las Vegas work. It is comprised of three sections:

  1. How Nevada Classifies Drugs: This section goes over how Nevada classifies controlled substances. This is important to understand because many of the laws and penalties use the classification system to determine punishments.
  2. Las Vegas, Nevada's Drug Laws and their Penalties: This section discusses how Nevada punishes certain acts related to drugs. It goes over the penalties and the variations within those penalties. It does not focus on specific statutes but instead discusses how Nevada criminalizes narcotics in general.
  3. Defenses Against Nevada's Drug Laws: This section discusses ways to defend yourself against Las Vegas drug crime prosecutions. It touches on suppression motions and how Nevada deals with constructive possession of controlled substances.
  4. Plea Deals, Deferrals, and Drug Court: This section looks at ways to avoid prison and programs available to those who have been charged with a Nevada drug crime in Las Vegas, Henderson, and North Las Vegas.  

Nevada was once known as being one of the toughest states on drug possession. Their low possession thresholds for very long prison sentences were often cited as being excessively cruel. However, effective July 1st, 2020 new laws came into effect that radically changed Nevada's drug laws.

Nevada still has a strict no-tolerance policy and makes it a felony to possess any controlled substances other than marijuana or without a prescription. However, Nevada has also enacted laws that allow for first-time personal users to have their charges dismissed off their record. Nevada has also drastically raised the possession thresholds for serious offenses such as trafficking (from 4 grams to over 100 grams for low-level trafficking, and high-level trafficking now requires 400+ grams) to bring them more into line with today's standards.

Read on to learn more about how Las Vegas, Nevada's drug laws work.

How Nevada Classifies Drugs

To understand how Nevada punishes drug crimes, the first thing that must be understood is how Nevada defines drug crimes. Many of the laws for narcotics have differing penalties depending on the “schedule” that the drug belongs to.

Assigning drugs to a schedule was passed into law by Congress in 1970 with the Controlled Substance Act. Before the Controlled Substance Act in 1970, there was a patchwork of laws that covered narcotics. Once Congress passed the Controlled Substance Act, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws took it to the states, which passed its version into their laws. Nevada passed the Uniform Controlled Substances Act in 1971.

All narcotics in Nevada are classified into a schedule depending on the drug's abuse or dependency potential and the narcotic's acceptable medical use. Each schedule has a definition. Those are:

  • Schedule I: The drug has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medical use in treatment in the United States or lacks accepted safety for use in treatment under medical supervision (NRS 453.166).
  • Schedule II: The substance has a high potential for abuse, an accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, or accepted medical use with severe restrictions, and the abuse of the substance may lead to severe psychological or physical dependence (NRS 453.176).
  • Schedule III: The substance has a potential for abuse less than the substances listed in schedules I and II, has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and abuse of the narcotic may lead to moderate or low physical dependence or high psychological dependence (NRS 453.186).
  • Schedule IV: The drug has a low potential for abuse relative to substances in schedule III, currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and abuse may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the drugs in schedule III (NRS 453.196).
  • Schedule V: The narcotic has a low potential for abuse relative to substances listed in schedule IV, has accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and abuse of the substance may lead to limited physical dependence or psychological dependence relative to the substances listed in schedule IV (NRS 453.206).

Nevada law requires that the Nevada Board of Pharmacy classify all drugs and designate their schedule. They create a comprehensive list of each schedule and include any narcotics that have similar chemical makeups in that list. The Nevada Administrative Code (NAC) in chapter 453 is where the current schedules are maintained. Click the links below for an exhaustive list of each schedule.

Schedule I

(NAC 453.510)

Schedule II

(NAC 453.520)

Schedule III

(NAC 453.530)

Schedule IV

(NAC 453.540)

Schedule V

(NAC 453.550)

heroin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 3,4- methamphetamine, marijuana, methaqualone, cocaine, and peyote

Codeine, methadone, hydromorphone, morphine, Opium, oxycodone, fentanyl, amphetamine, Adderall, and Ritalin

Ketamine, anabolic steroids, testosterone, and Human Growth Hormone, and Lysergic Acid.

Clonazepam, Fludiazepam, Lorcaserin, Tramadol, Sibutramine, fenproporex, cathine, and prazepam.

Schedule 5 does not list specific narcotics and instead lists compounds and mixtures that contain drugs from other schedules.

Nevada classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug. However, marijuana is legal for recreational use in Nevada. This comprehensive guide generally does not apply to marijuana unless it explicitly says so.

Understanding the Nevada schedules is necessary to comprehend Nevada drug laws. That is because Nevada will often change penalties depending on what schedule the drug is classified. You will see more of this in the next section.

Nevada's Drug Laws and their Penalties

Nevada punishes drug crimes rather harshly. While Las Vegas is known as the City of Sin, the sins that they do not approve of are severely punished. This is the case with drug laws in Nevada. In 2019 they were overhauled to at least make them fairer, but they still have severe penalties for people who have large quantities of drugs, possession of schedule I or II drugs, and repeat offenders.

Nevada's controlled substance laws often differentiate between those who are simply possessing for personal use and those who are selling, manufacturing, or transporting. For example, if you are arrested with less than 14 grams of a schedule I or schedule II drug or less than 28 grams of a schedule III, Schedule IV, or Schedule V drug and it is your first offense then the court must give you mandatory diversion, allowing you to have the charge dismissed off of your record. 

Nevada classifies felonies with a letter designation. The most serious felonies are “A” felonies and can carry up to a life sentence in prison. The least serious is “E” felonies and, in many instances, are mandatory probation or diversion eligible. 

Almost all the felonies are Category A, B, or C. That is because Nevada has only one statute that addresses personal possession (NRS 453.336). The rest deal with manufacturing (NRS 453.322), transporting (NRS 453.321), maintaining a “drug house” (NRS 453.316), trafficking (NRS 453.3385), etc.

Figure 1: Nevada Drug Crime Penalty Classifications (Includes same felonies that have different penalties for repeat offenses and different weights/schedules)

Nevada's drug crimes are often more severe the more drugs in a person's possession. For example, Nevada's trafficking statute (NRS 453.3385) has two penalties: a Category B felony for having 100 – 400 grams of a Schedule I or II controlled substance and a Category A felony for having 400 or more grams of a Schedule I or II controlled substance.

Drug laws in Nevada also punish crimes that involve Schedule I or II controlled substances more harshly. For example, Nevada's possession without intent to sell statute (NRS 453.336) has tiers of penalties based on weight and schedule. That means that having a certain amount of a Schedule I or II drugs can result in worse penalties if you have the same amount of weight in Schedule III, IV, or V narcotics.

Repeat offenders are also punished more severely according to Nevada's Drug Crime schema.  The transporting law (NRS 453.321) illustrates how this works.  A first offense is a Category C felony, a second offense is a Category B felony, and a third offense is a more severe Category B felony.

Nevada's laws on controlled substances also attempt to limit the ability to receive probation. Figure 2 has a breakdown of Nevada's laws that are not eligible for probation, have a presumption against probation, and are probation eligible. It's also important to note that the number of probation-eligible crimes significantly decreases when removing the personal possession statute.

Figure 2: Percentage of Nevada Drug Crimes that are eligible for probation, have a presumption against probation, and are not probation eligible.

Presumption against probation is almost always due to repeat offenses. For example, if you are being charged with a second or third offense of Transporting (NRS 453.321), then the statute explicitly states:

Unless mitigating circumstances exist that warrant the granting of probation, the court shall not grant probation to or suspend the sentence of a person convicted under subsection 4 and punishable pursuant to paragraph (b) or (c) of subsection 4.

The subsections mentioned are convictions for a second and third offense, respectively. 

Nevada's laws also provide "enhancements" to drug crimes. These are not crimes but can enhance the penalties if the crime you are being charged with was committed in certain circumstances. It is important to note that these enhancements will double any term of imprisonment. 

Figure 3: Nevada Drug Crime Enhancements

The takeaway from all this is that a Nevada Criminal Defense Attorney knows the law is necessary if you are charged with a drug crime in Las Vegas, Henderson, or North Las Vegas. That is because even when there are significant amounts of drugs, a narcotics defense attorney can often negotiate with the district attorney. They can usually convince them to charge under a different statute that may lower the felony classification and change it from not probation eligible to probation eligible.

Defenses Against Las Vegas Drug Prosecutions

When Nevada charges you with a drug crime in Las Vegas, you need a robust defense. Frequently the defense will occur before any trial. That is because drug crimes are what we call possession crimes.

A possession crime is one where if the item is in your possession, they are challenging to defend against. Normal defenses such as having an alibi, mistaken identity, and insanity are not relevant. That is because when you are arrested for a possession crime in Las Vegas, Nevada, you are often in the exact location as the items seized.

Drug crimes follow the same rules. In almost every case, the question is not, “were there drugs?” but instead, “Whose drugs are they?” There are only two strong defenses against a criminal drug charge, and each of them is what we call very fact-specific.

A fact-specific inquiry means that the facts surrounding the arrest, statements from others and yourself, and the conduct of the police are going to determine what, if any, defenses are available to you. Those defenses are:

  1. Constitutional Violation
  2. No Actual or Constructive Possession of the Controlled Substance

I do want to point out that there are potentially more defenses to a Nevada drug crime prosecution in Las Vegas. Examples are involuntary intoxication, entrapment, mistake of fact, and a genuinely mistaken identity defense. However, these defenses are rare and happen very infrequently, and are extremely difficult to pull off.

If you think any of them could be relevant to your case, contact Goodwin Law Group, PLLC today for a free case assessment.   

Constitutional Violation

A constitutional violation occurs when a government agent violates one of your constitutional rights. This could be a violation of your right against an unlawful search, right to an attorney, right to remain silent, etc.

Constitutional violations of drug crimes almost always come down to the constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure. These are often called “4th Amendment violations” or “problems with the search.”

A 4th Amendment violation occurs when an officer or an agent for the State – be that Nevada or the United States – searches without your consent or a warrant and has no justification for doing so.

SEVERAL justifications (often called “exceptions to the warrant requirement”) allow officers to search without a warrant. If there were justification, the search would be deemed lawful. If a search is not considered legal, the evidence seized is suppressed. This effectively destroys the prosecutor's case because the prosecutor can not introduce the drugs into evidence if it goes to trial.

Figure 4: Seven Common Warrant Exceptions

Suppression motions are what a Nevada Criminal Defense attorney files into a case to challenge a search. After the motion is filed, the court will generally set a “briefing schedule.” That gives the prosecutor time to respond to the motion and your lawyer one more chance to respond to the prosecutor's motion.

Once the motions are in, there is generally an evidentiary hearing. An evidentiary hearing is like a trial. The difference is there is no jury, and you are not the person being tried. Instead, it is to determine if there was a violation of your constitutional rights. The officers who searched must testify, and evidence such as bodycams are often introduced.

After the evidentiary hearing, the judge will make a ruling. If there was a constitutional violation, then the evidence is suppressed. If there was not a constitutional violation, then the evidence will be admissible at trial. Often, the judge's ruling resolves the case. Either there is no evidence for trial, and it is dismissed, or the evidence is admissible, and depending on the facts of your case, it will be in your best interest to negotiate a plea deal.

One strategy that criminal defense attorneys will use is to file a suppression motion for negotiation. Suppression motions are frequently lots of

work and can potentially destroy a prosecutor's case. If there is some weight to the search being illegal, some prosecutors will do what they can to resolve the issue without fighting over the search. This can result in deals that plead down significantly from the original charge.

Searches are fact-intensive. There is no easy way to assess if your case has a search issue unless you speak with a Las Vegas, Nevada drug defense lawyer. If you think there might be a search issue, contact Charles Goodwin today, and we can look at your case together and decide whether your search was legal or illegal.

No Actual or Constructive Possession of the Controlled Substance

It may seem like a no-brainer, but there must be actual or physical possession to be guilty of most Nevada drug crimes. Actual possession is easy. If you have drugs on your person, in your backpack you are wearing, or a bag you are carrying, you are in actual possession of controlled substances.

Constructive possession poses more complex questions. For example, if you are a guest in a house and there are drugs out that you did not purchase or partake of but are aware of, are you guilty of possession of a controlled substance? What about drugs in the backseat of your car in a backpack that your friend left there?

The term "constructive possession" attempts to answer these questions. It is not a defined law in Las Vegas, Nevada, and is instead defined by the Nevada Supreme Court. That definition is:

A defendant has constructive possession of a controlled substance "only if she [he] maintains control or a right to control the contraband." Further, "possession may be imputed when the contraband is found in a location which is immediately and exclusively accessible to the accused and subject to her [his] dominion and control."

- Sheriff, Washoe Cty. v. Steward, 109 Nev. 831, 835-36, 858 P.2d 48, 51 (1993)

This definition is how we determine if somebody has possession. For example, the prosecutor would have to prove that you had control or a right to control it in the first scenario—a tall order. However, if you both paid a portion of it and found it in their house, you would be guilty of constructive possession.

For the second example, there would be an inquiry into why they were there. If your friend forgot them and you were pulled over alone, and unless your friend would be willing to come forward and claim the drugs, you would more than likely be charged. However, if your friend left them behind his seat and was pulled over and they searched the backpack (legally), you would likely not be charged, and only your friend would.

There are several variations on constructive possession, and it can get very complicated. If you were arrested and did not have any narcotics but were still charged, you should consult a Las Vegas criminal defense attorney.

Plea Deals, Deferrals, and Drug Court

Sometimes, the facts are not on your side. Whether that is because you were framed, "snitched" on, or simply guilty of the crime. In that instance, taking a narcotics charge to trial in Las Vegas could be a suicide run. The harsh nature of Nevada's penalties for drug crimes ensures that. 

Even if you are guilty or there is no way to win, there are a few ways to ensure you don't go to prison. The three most common are:

  1. Taking a plea deal
  2. Receiving a deferral
  3. Drug Court

Plea Deals

When there is no viable defense and going to trial would not be in your best interest, then taking a negotiation and cutting your losses is the best idea. This can be done through a "plea deal."

A plea deal is when your Las Vegas criminal defense lawyer negotiates a plea that is both acceptable to you and the prosecutor. A plea deal will often result in more lenient treatment in exchange for not going to trial.

More lenient treatment can mean several things. It can mean that a trafficking charge (mandatory prison) is reduced to a transporting charge (probation eligible). It can also mean that the enhancements are removed. In more extreme cases, it can be a stipulation of prison time that is much shorter than if you lost at trial.

A plea deal is usually negotiated by your attorney. A skilled drug defense attorney will be able to assess the case and know what the case is actually worth. This means that the attorney will know how much work must go into the case and whether the prosecutor "overcharged" the case. Overcharged means they charged offenses that will never be proven. If the case is overcharged or will take a lot of work, then negotiating a favorable result is likely.

Your Las Vegas criminal defense attorney can also work in "mitigating factors" when negotiating a plea deal. Mitigating factors are things that are to your benefit, such as:

  • supporting a family
  • No prior criminal history
  • steady employment history

Your attorney's job in that instance is to humanize you. The prosecutor might simply be looking at you as another case that has to be resolved. Your attorney can get there and humanize you in such a way as to gain favorable treatment.

Deferrals for Nevada Drug Crimes

Las Vegas does have deferrals for certain drug crimes.

A deferral is when you have pleaded guilty to a charge, but the judge sets aside the conviction. That means that a conviction is not entered against you. You are then required to complete specific requirements from the court. Those requirements are different based on which deferral you receive. If you successfully meet those requirements, your case will be dismissed. Nevada currently has two deferrals:

  1. NRS 176.211
  2. NRS 453.3363

These deferrals have different requirements.

NRS 176.211

NRS 176.211 is a broad deferral statute. That means that it does not just apply in drug cases but also in any felony charge that allows for probation. Category A felonies are the only felonies that do not qualify for probation.

In the context of Las Vegas controlled substances charges, this opens several options to have a charge deferred for dismissal potentially. There is only one caveat: The prosecutor must agree to the deferral.

If the prosecutor agrees to the deferral, the judge you are in front of can order several conditions. None of them are mandatory but there will definitely be conditions. Those conditions are:

  • Restitution
  • Court costs
  • Payment of an assessment in lieu of any fine authorized by law for the offense
  • Completion of a term of community service
  • Placement on probation
  • Completion of a specialty court program

Any combination or all of these requirements may be ordered.

If you fail to complete the deferral requirements or are arrested on new criminal charges, then the deferral ends. A conviction will be entered against you and will proceed to sentencing as if there was no deferral. It is still possible to get probation on the conviction.

When all of the terms and conditions of your deferral are complete, then your criminal record is to be sealed by the judge who was supervising you. This means that the proceedings and the arrest will not be visible to certain queries. 

 NRS 453.3363

A deferral pursuant to NRS 453.3363 (called 3363 for short) is a specialized deferral that can be used for certain narcotics-related crimes in Nevada. Its requirements are different than a deferral for NRS 176.211 because it focuses on substance abuse rehabilitation.

A 3363 deferral is not available to everybody. It can only be used in the following circumstances:

  • Intentionally having a child present while using controlled substances (NRS 453.3325(1)(a))
  • Possession of a Controlled Substance (1st Offense)(NRS 453.336(2)(a))
  • Unlawful Use of a Controlled Substance (NRS 453.411)
  • Drugs Which May not be Introduced into Interstate Commerce (454.351)

Two of those charges are misdemeanors: Unlawful Use of a Controlled Substance and Drugs which may not be Introduced into Interstate Commerce. 

Similar to NRS 176.211, violations of a condition of probation, the conviction will enter, and you will go straight to sentencing. Probation is still a possibility once you go to sentencing but is not guaranteed.

Completing the requirements of probation will result in a dismissal of the conviction. However, it is still a conviction for additional penalties and the setting of bail. However, it functionally acts as setting you back to where you were before being arrested. That means you can state, without perjuring yourself, that you have never been arrestedif this is the only arrest. This program is only available to you once.

Las Vegas, Nevada Adult Drug Court

Drug court was established to address low-level drug felonies and provide people who are addicted to drugs a chance at rehabilitation. Originally it was a separate program. Now, it is generally utilized under a 3363 deferral or as a condition of probation. 

Adult drug court is a very intense program. Its goal is to get at the root of the addiction and ensure that the addictive behavior is addressed. Drug Court requires individuals to:

  • Attend an outpatient program
  • Sometimes start on House Arrest
  • Sometimes wear a SCRAM bracelet
  • Attend 12-step program meetings
  • Pay for and attend random drug testing
  • Attend court for regular status check reviews
  • Referrals to sober living and low-income housing for those who need it
  • Inpatient, if necessary
  • Individual and group substance counseling

There are two requirements to be accepted into drug court:

  1.  Identifiable drug or alcohol abuse disorder
  2. No history of violent offenses or drug trafficking

The second requirement - no violent crimes or drug trafficking - is not a hard and fast rule. They are assessed on an individual basis, but it is difficult to overcome. They also look at what led to the arrest to make the determination if you are eligible. In general, they do not want the drug court to be filled with drug dealers attempting to avoid prison.

Once you are in the program, you are responsible for the costs. The court requires a payment of $1,500. You also pay for other treatment programs and ancillary charges such as SCRAM.

You can have your drug offense dismissed if you complete drug court under NRS 453.3363 or NRS 176.211. Otherwise, drug court will be a condition of your probation. Often, drug court is utilized by an attorney when you are already on probation and are arrested, or you keep testing positive for drugs while on probation. Judges do not want to terminate and send people to prison who are only suffering from drug problems. They will often allow them to attend a drug court program in the hopes of rehabilitation. Failing at drug court will almost assuredly result in being sent to prison. 

If You are Charged with a Drug Crime in Las Vegas We Can Help

Being charged with a drug crime in Nevada can be scary, disorienting, and leave you in shock. The best thing you can do is immediately contact a Nevada criminal defense attorney. Charles Goodwin and Goodwin Law Group, PLLC are here for you. We have the experience and the knowledge to help push back and fight your narcotics charge. Whether you believe there is a search issue, the drugs weren't yours, or you are looking to limit your exposure, Charles Goodwin is here for you. He has experience fighting these cases. Call today, and don't let the prosecutor have their way with your future.

Call today for your free case assessment 702 472 9594

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The Goodwin Law Group, PLLC is committed to answering your questions about Criminal Defense law issues in Nevada.

We offer a Free Consultation and we'll gladly discuss your case with you at your convenience. Contact us today to schedule an appointment. Call us today at 702-472-9594.

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