Federal drug charges can carry significant sentences. Depending on the amount of drugs allegedly involved, it does not take a great number of charges to create a very real potential for a sentence of life in prison. Even if the sentence is not explicitly life, a combination of multiple charges can quickly add up to what for many suspects will be effectively a life sentence.
This is why the charging discretion of U.S. Attorneys is such a powerful tool when it comes to extracting guilty pleas from suspects. Plea bargains make up a substantial part of all criminal prosecutions and when it comes to federal drug offenses, there is a compelling reason.
In 2012, one study of sentences for drug defendants found that while the average sentence for a plea agreement was 5 years, 4 months, for those who go to trial, it was 16 years. This is because prosecutors do not want trials, as they can be difficult, time-consuming, risky and take a lot of the office's resources. They have to line up witnesses, experts and law enforcement, and then show beyond a reasonable doubt the accused's guilt.
To prevent this, they can "overcharge" and using the mandatory minimums that are attached to many drug offenses, leave a suspect facing a sentence of dozens, if not hundreds of years. Even individuals who had only minor roles in the drug transaction, if they are a large amount by weight, may face decades in prison if they lose at trial.
This risk makes it very important that if you have been charged with any drug offense to have very careful discussions with your attorney before you accept a plea deal or go to trial. The consequence of a mistake could be time measured by quarter centuries in prison.