Rockefeller Drug Laws

Daily News
The Jan. 4, 1973 edition of the New York Daily News (via fair use)

The Rockefeller Drug Laws of 1973 radically changed how the American justice system worked. Under these New York State laws, the penalty for selling small amounts of heroin, opium, or marijuana became a minimum of 15 years to life in prison, and a maximum of 25 years to life in prison. (wikipedia)

Though not seen at the time, these laws marked a turning point in our approach to crime. Both the states and the federal government began to escalate “tough on crime” laws.

As of 2015, twenty-eight states have some form of three strikes law, and penalties for drug possession remain high. (html)

The prison population went from 330,000 to over 2.3 million at its peak. Blacks and other minorities were hit the hardest.


Joseph Perisco says that Rockefeller, previously a fan of treatment over punishment, was influenced by zero-tolerance policies of the time being introduced in Japan. See Drug Laws as Japanese Import

The laws were seen as a conservative white reaction to social decay, but recent research highlights the role of black communities in pushing for them. See Black Silent Majority

Films of the time detailed a city unraveling under the influence of drugs. See The French Connection, Panic in Needle Park

Campaign Zero attempts to undo some of the damage of the tough-on-crime policies.

Source: Rockefeller Drug Laws


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