Rockefeller drug laws

The Rockefeller drug laws is the term used to denote 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, signed it on May 8, 1973.

Under the Rockefeller drug laws, the penalty for selling two ounces (approximately 56 grams) or more of heroin, morphine, "raw or prepared opium," cocaine, or cannabis, including marijuana (these latter two being included in the statute even though they are not "narcotics" from a chemical standpoint), or possessing four ounces (approximately 113 grams) or more of the same substances, was made the same as that for second-degree murder: 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 The section of the laws applying to marijuana was repealed in 1979, under the Democratic Governor Hugh Carey.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 (approximately 1.45 pounds) 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. 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.

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.

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