40 Years Later: Drug Policy in New York After the Rockefeller Drug Laws

The start of the war on drugs, while generally attributed to President Nixon's declaration in 1971, actually took on its present-day form 40 years ago today -- May 8, 1973. That's when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller signed his eponymous drug laws, implementing a policy regime of criminalization and marking the start of America's unparalleled race to incarcerate.

New York's "lock 'em up" approach to drug policy garnered national attention, as other states enacted their own versions of the Rockefeller Drug Laws. The draconian laws never stopped or reduced drug use, but they changed the way America approached sentencing, and became infamous worldwide for their severity and shocking racial disparities.

America became the world's leading jailer. The very term Rockefeller Drug Laws has practically become a euphemism for unfair, racially biased mandatory prison sentences and drug-war related mass incarceration. Nixon launched the war on drugs, but Rockefeller built the state policy apparatus to implement it.

Where does drug policy stand in New York today? While the Rockefeller Drug Laws were significantly reformed in 2009, drug policy in New York is still dominated by the Rockefeller paradigm of criminalization. We're still suffering from ongoing racial disparities, increasing overdose deaths and continued barriers to treatment.

For instance, New York decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, but today, marijuana possession is among the leading arrests in the state and the No. 1 arrest in New York City. Nearly all those arrested or ticketed are black or Latino young men. And while the state Legislature is considering reform, the issue no longer appears on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's list of priorities.

Also, take the No. 1 cause of accidental death in New York City and state: accidental overdose. Most overdoses deaths are preventable if emergency help is called, but studies show that most people don't call 911 in an overdose situation.

Why? They're afraid of getting a ride in the back of a cop car instead of an ambulance -- an understandable fear in the state of the Rockefeller Drug Laws.

State lawmakers passed a 911 Good Samaritan Law to address this, but too few people know about it.

And what about treatment? New York has the largest drug treatment system in the country, but it's still not sufficient. Studies show that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who want treatment still can't get it, and many people can only access drug treatment through the criminal justice system -- meaning they have to get arrested to get treatment.

Meanwhile, while incarceration for drug offenses continues to drop, there still were over 200,000 people incarcerated under the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Thousands of individuals, incarcerated under laws we now agree were unjust, must navigate a world that is increasingly hostile and inaccessible to formerly incarcerated people.

In a historic shift unthinkable just a decade ago, communities and leaders in New York, the White House, and many elected officials from both sides of the aisle agree that drug policies must shift toward a public health approach. A new report by the New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance outlines a new approach in New York. Together, we can integrate prevention, treatment, harm, reduction and public safety. We can reduce racial disparities -- and we can save lives.

As noted in a recent editorial in the New York Times, the 40th anniversary of the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws is time for us to build a new, coordinated, health-focused approach in New York. Our state can again lead the nation in establishing model drug policies. This time, we can do it right.