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Court’s Ruling Limits Application of Designer Drug Law in Pennsylvania

June 22, 2017

By van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim

Under Pennsylvania law, it is illegal to manufacture, possess, or distribute designer drugs. Determining what qualifies as a designer drug can be difficult, which leads to many unfair prosecutions. However, a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has helped clarify state law criminalizing possession of designer drugs by limiting its application. To learn more about how the Court’s holding could affect your own case, please contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can address your concerns.

Current Law

Pennsylvania’s designer drug law prohibits:

  • Intentionally possessing a designer drug; and
  • Possessing a designer drug with the intent to distribute it.

Designer drugs are specifically defined as substances that:

  • Are not considered a controlled substance;
  • Are intended for human consumption; and
  • Have a chemical structure that is substantially similar to or produces a similar effect as a Schedule I, II, or III controlled substance.

Constitutionality Challenge

In the recently decided case of Commonwealth v. Herman, the state Supreme Court rejected the argument that the “substantially similar” language of the designer drug law was unconstitutionally vague. However, the Court did state that in order to be convicted under the statute, the prosecutor must demonstrate that a defendant actually knew that the substance they possessed was a designer drug. The Court clarified that merely possessing a substance identified as a designer drug would not be enough to obtain a conviction. Instead, the defendant must have:

  • Possessed the substance; and
  • Known that the chemical had a molecular structure or effect that was substantially similar to that of a controlled substance.

Under this reading of the statute, average store owners who unknowingly sell designer drugs may be able to escape liability unless they make an incriminating admission to law enforcement officers.

Penalties and Defenses

The penalties for a designer drug conviction are severe and can lead to a prison sentence of up to 15 years and fines of up to $250,000. Because there is so much at stake in these types of cases, it is critical for those who have been accused of possessing or distributing designer drugs to retain an experienced attorney who can demonstrate the defendant’s lack of:

  • Knowledge as to the nature of the substance; and
  • Intent to sell what he or she knew to be a designer drug.

According to the state Supreme Court’s recently published decision, proving intent is critical to obtaining a conviction for possessing designer drugs.

Call Today to Speak With an Experienced Philadelphia Criminal Defense Attorney

Being convicted of a drug offense can have serious consequences. Aside from jail time and expensive fines, defendants also risk having a permanent criminal record, which can make it difficult to secure employment or find housing. Having the advice and guidance of an attorney can make all the difference in the outcome of a case, so if you were recently charged with possessing or distributing a designer drug, please contact van der Veen, Hartshorn, Levin & Lindheim in Philadelphia at (215) 486-0123 to speak with a dedicated criminal defense attorney who can evaluate your case.



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