On December 21, 2018, federal sentencing laws for drug cases were amended significantly. The First Step Act removed the mandatory life sentence for 3 time drug offenders in high quantity drug dealing cases and also reduced the mandatory minimum sentences for 2nd offenses.

Also, the First Step Act also made the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactive, meaning that defendants who were sentenced prior to 2010 for certain drug offenses could seek resentencing under the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced the penalties for certain cocaine-related offenses. It increased the amount of cocaine base needed to trigger the mandatory sentences from 5 grams to 28 grams.

Example: In 2009, a Philadelphia resident was convicted of possession with intent to distribute 5 grams of crack cocaine. Under the federal drug sentencing law in effect at the time, the individual was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years because the conviction was his second felony drug offense. Because of the First Step Act, this individual filed a motion for resentencing under the Fair Sentencing Act which allowed him to be released.  

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Under the former sentencing law which applied to high quantity drug dealing cases (i.e., 5 kg of cocaine, 1 kg of heroin, 280 grams of crack, etc.):

  • a first offense resulted in a mandatory 10 year prison sentence (or 20 years in cases where death or serious injury occurs due to the substance use),
  • a second offense resulted in a mandatory 20 year prison sentence, and
  • a third offense triggered a mandatory LIFE sentence.

Now, for high quantity drug dealing cases,

  • the mandatory minimum for a first offense is the same,
  • now, the mandatory minimum for a second offense is 15 years, and
  • now, the mandatory minimum for a third offense is 25 years.

Related: Federal Sentences for Drug Dealing Convictions in Philadelphia [The mandatory minimum sentence for a federal drug dealing conviction depends on the quantity of drugs manufactured or sold and whether the individual has prior felony drug convictions. Prior to December 2018, 3rd offenses received a mandatory life sentence.]


In the previous version of Section 841 (b), any prior “felony drug offense” triggered the increased sentences. Under state and federal law, a felony is a crime punishable by over a year in prison.  Just because you’re convicted of a felony doesn’t mean that you actually serve over a year in prison. The First Step Act took this into account and amended Section 841 so that only a “serious drug felony” or a “serious violent felony” triggers the increased sentences. Under the First Step Act’s amendments, a serious drug felony is one where a defendant actually served a prison sentence of more than 12 months.

This distinction, although small, has significant ramifications for Philadelphia residents facing drug dealing charges in federal court. For example, a Philadelphia resident has a single prior conviction for possession (not drug dealing) of a large quantity of drugs. The resident is arrested by federal agents and charged with possession with intent to distribute 1 kg of heroin. If the resident is convicted of the new offense, the new 15 year mandatory minimum prison sentence won’t apply.

Get More Criminal Law Info:

Traffic Stops – When Can Police Stop a Car in Philadelphia? [Drug charges are often filed after police seize drug evidence from a car during a “routine” traffic stop. Learn about state and federal law and the constitutional protections that apply to searches of cars.]

Drug Charges in Philadelphia – Motions to Suppress Evidence [Motions to Suppress Evidence are pretty common in drug and gun possession cases. Did law enforcement violate the individual’s constitutional rights in any way? If so, evidence seized as a result of the violation may be suppressed, or thrown out of the case. If this occurs, the case or some of the charges may be dismissed.]