A Brief History of New York State Drug Laws

The Rockefeller Drug Laws

Rampant drug use in the early 1970’s led the New York State legislature to institute a number of  reforms to combat the growing problem.  On May 3, 1973, after the failure of non-punitive measure to stem the rising tide of drug usage, the legislature enacted statutes providing severe penalties for sale or possession of “narcotics.”  The statutes became known as the Rockefeller Drug Laws, named after Governor Nelson D. Rockefeller who championed the law through their passage and ultimately signed them into law.

Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws, an individual faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years in prison for possessing 4 ounces or selling 2 ounces of heroin, morphine, opium, cocaine, or marijuana.  The passage of these harsh penalties made New York the toughest drug laws in the country.  As a result, the percentage of drug offenders in New York State prison swelled from 11% in 1973 to 35% in 1994.  From their inception the Rockefeller Drug Laws came under harsh criticism for their draconian sentences and unfair application to minority communities.  Challengers argued that the laws punished drug addicts with long prison sentences rather than giving them the medical treatment they needed.

The Drug Law Reform Act of 2004

On December 14, 2004 Governor George Pataki signed into law the Drug Reform Act, which reduced the most severe mandatory minimum sentence from 15 years down to 8, and doubled the weight threshold for the most serious offenses.  The Act also allowed individuals convicted under the previous laws to reapply for new sentences.  Since 2004, the number of prisoners serving sentences for narcotics felonies has fallen sharply.  Critics charged, however,  that the Drug Reform Act of 2004 did not do enough to alter the law.

The Patterson Reforms of 2009

In his first State of the State address in January 2009, Governor David Paterson stated, “I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws.”  Later that year Governor Paterson signed into law new reforms which eliminated mandatory sentences for many high level offenders and making lower level offenders eligible for treatment programs.  The law also applied retroactively and allowed over 1,000 prisoners to apply for resentencing.  Although New York remains tough on drugs, these recent reforms have allowed courts and lawyers more room to negotiate the best possible outcome for an individual charged with a drug crime.

What does this mean for you?