Rockefeller Drug Laws
The Rockefeller Drug Laws are the statutes dealing with the sale and possession of "narcotic" drugs in the New York State Penal Law. The laws are named after Nelson Rockefeller, who was the state's governor at the time the laws were adopted. Rockefeller, a staunch supporter of the bill containing the laws, had Presidential ambitions and so wanted to raise his national posture by being "tough on crime." If this strategy worked, he would no longer be seen as too liberal to be elected. He signed it on May 8, 1973.
Under the Rockefeller drug laws, the penalty for selling two ounces (57 g) or more of heroin, morphine, "raw or prepared opium," cocaine, or cannabis or possessing four ounces (113 g) or more of the same substances, was a minimum of 15 years to life in prison, and a maximum of 25 years to life in prison. The original legislation also mandated the same penalty for committing a violent crime while under the influence of the same drugs, but this provision was subsequently omitted from the bill and was not part of the legislation Rockefeller ultimately signed. The section of the laws applying to marijuana was repealed in 1977, under the Democratic Governor Hugh Carey.
The adoption of the Rockefeller drug laws gave New York State the distinction of having the toughest laws of its kind in the entire United States — an approach soon imitated by the state of Michigan, which, in 1978, enacted a "650-Lifer Law," which called for life imprisonment, without the possibility of parole for the sale, manufacture, or possession of at least 650 grams (1.43 lb) of cocaine or any Schedule I or Schedule II opiate.
Both the New York and Michigan statutes came under harsh criticism from both the political left and the political right. William F. Buckley, one of the most conservative public figures in America, was staunchly against it, as well as many in law enforcement, who saw inherent unfairness in placing the non-violent crime of drug trafficking on a par with murder. Economist Murray Rothbard called the laws "draconian: long jail sentences for heroin pushers and addicts. The Rockefeller program, which proved finally to be a fiasco, was the epitome of the belief in treating a social or medical problem with jail and the billy club." The laws also drew intense opposition from civil rights advocates, who claimed that they were racist, as they were applied inordinately to African-Americans and, to a lesser extent, Latinos.
In 2002, at age 46, Meile Rockefeller was arrested for protesting the Rockefeller drug laws. She was accompanied by her brother, Stuart Rockefeller, and was supported by other members of the family on the issue, including her grandfather's brother, Laurance Rockefeller.
Michigan's statute was reformed somewhat in 1998, with the mandatory life sentence being reduced to a 20-year minimum. On December 14, 2004, New York Governor George Pataki signed into law the Drug Law Reform Act (DLRA) (2004 N.Y. Laws Ch. 738 (effective January 13, 2005)), which replaced the indeterminate sentencing scheme of the Rockefeller Drug Laws with a determinate system and reduced mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent felony drug offenders. The DLRA also reduced the minimum penalty for conviction on the most serious (A-I felony) drug charge in New York from 15-life to 8 years in prison for an offender with no prior felonies. In addition, the weight thresholds for the two most serious possession offenses (A-I and A-II) were doubled, and those serving life sentences were permitted to apply for re-sentencing. Since 2004, the number of prisoners serving sentences for A-I narcotics felonies has been cut by more than half.
New York moderation in 2004 and 2009
On December 14, 2004, New York Governor George Pataki signed into law the Drug Law Reform Act (DLRA) (2004 N.Y. Laws Ch. 738 (effective January 13, 2005)), which replaced the indeterminate sentences required by the Rockefeller Drug Laws for defendants sentenced to state prison terms with determinate sentences, and reduced mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent felony drug offenders. With an indeterminate sentence, a defendant would be sentenced to a range of time instead of a set term. For a predicate felon, that is, a defendant charged with a felony offense after having already been sentenced for a prior felony conviction, the minimum range could be as high as half the maximum sentence. Prior to 2005, a defendant charged with a single sale of a narcotic, (a class B felony) such as crack cocaine or heroin, would face an indeterminate term with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of four and a half years in state prison. In contrast, a minimum sentence in 2005 was no more than three years.
The DLRA also reduced the minimum penalty for conviction on the most serious (A-I felony) drug charge in New York from 15-life to 8 years in prison for an offender with no prior felonies. In addition, the weight thresholds for the two most serious possession offenses (A-I and A-II) were doubled, and those serving life sentences were permitted to apply for re-sentencing. Since 2004, the number of prisoners serving sentences for A-I narcotics felonies has been cut by more than half.
In his first State of the State address in January 2009, New York Governor David Paterson was critical of the Rockefeller drug laws, stating, "I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws."
In April 2009, the New York Penal Law and the New York Criminal Procedure Law were revised to remove the mandatory minimum sentences. Under the new law, judges now had the authority to sentence defendants convicted of drug offences on guilty plea to shorter sentences, probation or drug treatment - the last known as known as "Judicial Diversion". Prior to 2009, drug treatment was available at the discretion of prosecutors. The sentencing was made retroactive, which allowed over 1000 incarcerated defendants to apply for resentence and possibly release them.
New York City remains the cannabis-arrest capital of the world, with over 40,000 arrests in 2008. Despite New York's decriminalization of simple possession, New York City police arrest suspects for possession in public view, which remains a misdemeanor. During a Terry stop, officers may falsely suggest that a suspect should voluntarily reveal contraband to avoid arrest, then arrest the suspect if he reveals cannabis to public view. In 2008, the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the crackdown for its cost and scope, its reliance on stop-and-frisks and police coercion to escalate simple possession into an arrestable offense, and the disproportionate number of young, black and Latino males arrested.
- Rothbard, Murray (1979-03-05) Nelson Rockefeller, R.I.P., LewRockwell.com
- Haberman, Clyde (2002-11-05). "NYC; Proud Of the Name, Not the Laws". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-02-22.
- Irene Jay Liu (9 January 2009). "Paterson once arrested over Rockefeller drug law reform". Times Union. Albany, New York. Retrieved 2009-12-20.
- Dave Canfield (8 October 2009). "Drug Law Reforms in Place". The Record. Troy, New York. Retrieved 2009-12-20.
- Gabriel Sayegh (26 August 2009). "New York City's Massive Marijuana Arrests". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2009-12-20.
- New York Civil Liberties Union (2008-04-29). "NYC Marijuana Possession Arrests Skyrocket, Illustrate NYPD Racial Bias, New Report Shows". Retrieved 2010-05-04.
- NPR program on the Rockefeller laws Entitled The Drug Laws That Changed How We Punish
- 2 hour MP3 Panel Discussion Critical of the Rockefeller Drug Laws
- NORML State by State Laws Guide
- New York Legislature to Vote on Overhauling Draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws
- Albany Reaches Deal to Repeal ’70s Drug Laws