Treatment-focused Sentencing: The Drug User vs. Drug Dealer Distinction

Diversion, Drug Enforcement

Arizona’s sentencing structure makes a sharp distinction between drug users and drug dealers. Not all drug dealers are tied to drug cartels and deal in large amount of drugs. Most street-level dealers will sell grams or even milligrams of drugs to others. These dealers are often addicted themselves and have turned to dealing to support their own addiction to illicit substances.

Although the Drug Enforcement Bureau at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office works to take into account these realities in drafting plea resolutions that create treatment opportunities for such individuals, it is important to understand that that is different from the reality that faces defendants if they choose not to resolve a case short of trial and are found guilty of drug sales. Those struggling with substance abuse (and concerned family members or friends) need to realize that seeking treatment now could not only save the individual’s physical well-being, but also prevent involvement in further crime and the increasingly likely prospect of prison time.

Pursuant to Arizona Revised Statute § 13-901.01, any person convicted for their first and second instances of personal possession or use of a controlled substance (other than methamphetamine, though we regularly will consider treatment alternatives for methamphetamine users, too) must be sentenced to probation rather than prison. As part of probation, the court must order the defendant to take part in substance abuse education or treatment.  This remains true even if the defendant has prior felony convictions, as long as they are not violent convictions.

This treatment-focused sentencing structure the Arizona legislature has established for personal possession offenses is not available, however, for those convicted of drug-sales related offenses. For each controlled substance, the legislature has created a threshold amount beyond which the harm to the community from these amounts being introduced into our neighborhoods calls for a different approach. This amount determines whether or not a person must be sentenced to prison after having been convicted of a sales-related offense. If a defendant is convicted of a sales-related offense involving an amount of drugs that meets or exceeds the threshold amount for that drug, they will be sentenced to prison upon proof of the amount involved.. The threshold amounts are as follows:


THRESHOLD AMOUNT (A.R.S. § 13-3401(36)):

Amphetamine and Methamphetamine

9 grams


9 grams

Cocaine Base (crack cocaine)

750 milligrams


1 gram


2 pounds


½ milliliter (liquid);   50 dosage units (blotter)


4 grams (powder); 50 milliliters (in liquid suspension)

All other drugs

Amount of drug equal to $1,000

If you know someone who is struggling with a drug addiction, take action. Not only could you be helping them regain control over their own life and save it, you are likely helping them avoid a slow and inevitable path to further criminal conduct that could lead to prison. Additionally, you could also be helping the community by eliminating a source of illicit drugs that only furthers the cycle of addiction.

Recently, the Phoenix Police Department with support from the Governor’s Office of Youth, Faith and Families began The Arizona Angel Initiative in the Maryvale area to address the need to help those who may not know where to go.

The program allows individuals who have a drug addiction to come into a police precinct, turn in their drugs and get help without fear of arrest or prosecution. Any resident of the area can come to the Maryvale-Estrella Police Precinct at 6180 W. Encanto Blvd. between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. and request to take part in the program.

Participants receive education on life skills and solutions to break the cycle of addiction and achieve recovery. They also receive follow-up and after care and support. One of the innovative parts of this program allows Angels to help find appropriate child care for parents in the program as they work on their journey to recovery. This means that these children will not need to be placed in a foster home during this time.

The success of this program will allow community leaders to make the program available in other areas of the County.

For more, watch video of remarks at a recent press conference by County Attorney Bill Montgomery, Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski and Phoenix Police Commander Sean Connelly from the Maryvale-Estrella Mountain Precinct: