Why It's Time to Scrap the Rockefeller Drug Laws





Julilly Kohler-Hausmann is a Doctoral Candidate in the History Department, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Of course the Rockefeller Drug Laws have failed to reduce crime and drug abuse. It was never really their purpose. As a historian who studies the laws’ 1973 passage, I have watched with particular interest the most recent efforts to amend them. Debate has focused on whether severe sentences for drug possession and sale have “worked” for New York: Did they reduce crime, control addiction or discourage people from taking drugs? Ironically, we have known the answers to these questions for decades. Mountains of research and reports, some dating back to just months after the laws were implemented, have shown them to have little measurable impact on crime rates, addiction, and drug dealing.

If we want to understand the perseverance of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, it may suit us to ask entirely different questions. If they haven’t reduced crime or mitigated the crippling burden of drug addiction, what have they accomplished? Here, history teaches that these laws were never a reasoned strategy to address drug abuse. Instead, they were the result of a particular historical moment, a politically expedient, emotional declaration by Governor Rockefeller in the midst of mass social upheaval and growing heroin addiction.

Between 1962 and 1973, New York, led by Rockefeller, was a pioneer in the nation’s efforts to combat rising drug use. The state implemented a range of drug treatment strategies, from therapeutic communities to civil commitment to methadone maintenance. All these programs faced limitations and challenges; many were never adequately funded or given sufficient time to operate before the state switched tactics. Meanwhile, the public grew increasingly alarmed about heroin users. Many claimed the era’s rising crime rates were driven by addicts thieving to sustain their habit. Public anxiety climaxed not because of concern for drug addiction in inner cities, a devastating problem elites had largely ignored for decades, but because of reports that heroin had “spread” to white, middle-class communities. Panic was further heightened by news that hundreds of thousands of soldiers relied on cheap, abundant heroin in Vietnam to manage the boredom and terror of that war.

Yet, the state’s efforts to control addiction and crime failed to produce measurable results quickly enough for politicians promising to establish order. And since he was a frontrunner (neck and neck with then-Governor of California, Ronald Reagan) for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination, Nelson Rockefeller was especially anxious to generate positive national headlines in 1973.

So when he initially proposed mandatory life sentences for all drug dealers, Rockefeller was not trying a new tactic as much as changing the definition of success. Instead of a responsibility to treat addiction, he argued that the state was only accountable for protecting “society” from the “pushers” and “junkies.” Through mass incarceration, the laws segregated addicts from society and closed the possibility of reintegration and redemption, which had been a central (if often unrealized) objective of earlier treatment programs. With these laws, Rockefeller parted ways with most experts, even those within his administration. His chief council and lead narcotics advisor risked their jobs and relationship with him to privately express their opposition. Another advisor explained, “I never understood the psychological milieu in which the chain of errors in Vietnam was forged until I became involved in the Rockefeller drug proposal.”

The drug laws succeeded in their intended purpose. They dramatically improved Rockefeller’s standing within an increasingly conservative Republican Party. And more importantly, they helped legitimatize the state itself, which, after weathering bruising critiques from both the Left and the Right, was looking profoundly ineffectual. Unlike rehabilitation and treatment programs, politicians do not have to wait for reports to see if harsh punishment is “working.” The punishment is in itself the desired outcome. The laws expressed outrage and frustration with a vexing social problem and made the state and politicians seem both resolute and powerful.

Most Americans know someone who has struggled with addiction and they know that for those who recover, the journey is neither quick nor easy. If we are to chart a new course for drug policy in New York, we must join these millions of Americans who have directly faced the devastating and complex nature of the problem. New York City’s Mayor John Lindsay anticipated today’s predicament in his statement opposing the Rockefeller Drug Laws back in 1973: “We all know how empty it is to promise victory over crime by an emotional call to lock the criminals up and throw away the key. That is not a battle plan. It is merely a deceptive gesture, offering nothing beyond momentary satisfaction and inevitable disillusionment.” Now, 35 years later, politicians are hearing the public’s disillusionment with punishment for its own sake. They must renounce the shallow political rewards these laws pay at such high costs to New York and recommit to sharing responsibility for grappling with drug abuse.


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CW Cole - 6/23/2008

My compliments to Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, this story has great merit. It should be the headlines for every mainstream media source worldwide. It's time to get the politics and police out of drug use and abuse. There are many but one important point noted in this article is there was a reason for the drug use in Vietnam. People use drugs for a variety of reasons, talking to the addicts often gives insight that will never be found by locking them up and will no doubt lead to better methods of dealing with use and addiction.

IT'S TIME TO REMOVE ALL THE POLITICIANS THAT PROMOTE PROHIBITION.

HOW MANY MORE LIVES HAVE TO BE NEEDLESSLY DEVASTATED OR LOST?

PROHIBITED DRUGS ARE WAY EASIER FOR KIDS TO GET THAN REGULATED DRUGS!

PROHIBITION NEVER WORKS IT JUST CAUSES CRIME & VIOLENCE.

The USA spends $69 billion a year on the drug war, builds 900 new prison beds and hires 150 more correction officers every two weeks, arrests someone on a drug charge every 17 seconds, jails more people than any nation and has killed over 100,000 citizens in the drug war.

In 1914 when there were NO PROHIBITED DRUGS 1.3% of our population was addicted to drugs, TODAY 1.3% of our population is STILL ADDICTED TO DRUGS BUT THERE’S WAY MORE CRIME AND VIOLENCE BECAUSE OF THE HUGE PROFITS PROHIBITION GENERATES. DRUGS TODAY ARE MORE POTENT, MORE READILY AVAILABLE AND LESS EXPENSIVE THAN THEY WERE IN THE EARLY 70’S WHEN RICHARD NIXON STARTED THE WAR ON DRUGS.

Everyone needs to know about “Jury Nullification”. You can learn more here: http://fija.org If you are called for jury duty and you don’t agree with the law the person is charged with, you have the right to vote NOT GUILTY, NO MATTER WHAT EVIDENCE IS PRODUCED. Jurors implementing this right in ALL NON-VIOLENT drug cases will shut down the ridiculous laws of prohibition. One juror in each case is all it takes.

There’s only been one drug success story in history, tobacco, BY FAR THE MOST DEADLY and one of the MOST ADDICTIVE drugs. Almost half the users quit because of REGULATION, ACCURATE INFORMATION AND MEDICAL TREATMENT. No one went to jail and no one got killed.

DEMAND your Constitutional rights. The right; to freedom of religion, free speech, a free press, to keep and bear arms, to be secure in your person, house, papers and effects against unreasonable search and seizure, to life, liberty and property, to be protected from having your property taken by the government without due process of law and without just compensation, to confront the witnesses against you, to be protected from excessive bail, excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishment, to vote and many others have been denied to millions of Americans in the name of the drug war.

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