Illegal drugs can enter the United States in a variety of ways. One way is for people to carry illegal drugs in backpacks across our nation’s border. Recently, the U.S. government has significantly changed the way such cases will be prosecuted.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office has instituted a policy change in which “marijuana backpackers” in Arizona will now be criminally charged not just for possessing drugs, but also for unlawfully crossing the border between the United States and Mexico. This has the potential to affect hundreds of individuals who are placed under arrest each year. The change in policy was reportedly due to the zero-tolerance policy the U.S. Department of Justice implemented earlier this year for unlawful border crossing.

Prior to this policy change, marijuana backpackers who were placed under arrest would typically enter into a plea agreement, wherein in exchange for a guilty plea for possession of marijuana, the backpacker would be incarcerated for six months. These plea agreements were seen as necessary in order to provide a quicker resolution to the large volume of these types of cases.

However, now these plea agreements must include not only a sentence for marijuana possession, but also a mandatory six-month sentence for unlawful border crossing. While the two sentences can run concurrently, having an unlawful border crossing on one’s criminal record could lead to lengthier sentences of incarceration if a person is convicted of a crime in the future.

This policy change will affect many people, and can be seen as another way the federal government is cracking down on those who unlawfully enter the country. Whether it truly reduces the trafficking of drugs into the U.S. remains to be seen. However, citizens and non-citizens alike who are facing drug charges must understand that they are facing serious consequences if convicted. Moreover, a having a criminal record could affect them for the rest of their lives.