Rockefeller’s Draconian Drug Law

Four years, $141 million, and 2,000 life sentences later, New York has more drugs and more addicts than ever before

"The really serious results of this legislation … will only appear gradually and will not always be recognized as such. These will be the failures of promising careers, the disrupting of happy families, the commission of crimes which will never be traced to their real cause and the influx of many who would otherwise live socially competent lives into hospitals for the mentally disordered."—"New York Medical Journal," May 17, 1917, commenting on the first drug prohibition law, the federal Harrison Act.

Sometime a single incident, a matter of seconds, can sum up a condition more eloquently and powerfully than reams of theory, argument, and statistics. Here's such an incident:

The scene is The Pit, a street corner along Eighth Avenue in Harlem. There are more than 600 persons on the corner, a bustling display reminiscent of the floor of the stock exchange. Above the din is heard the shouting of esoteric names.

"Malcolm Green!"

"The Judge!"


"No Respect!"

These are brand names. Of illegal drugs.

Now through this crowd of busy shoppers comes Sterling Johnson, Jr., New York City's special narcotics prosecutor, with police aides. The entrepreneurs and their customers know Sterling Johnson. He is The Man. But they continue conducting business. The sellers are openly soliciting motorists, sometimes pushing their wares in through the window to give drivers a closer look. They are aware of The Man walking in their midst. They don't care.

Then one of them approaches Johnson. He scowls. "Man, get off the fucking street corner if ain't here to buy dope." The angry drug dealer walks on.

This occurred in 1976 more than three years after New York State enacted the harshest drug laws in the United States, laws mandating indefinite life sentences, severely restricted plea-bargaining, and lifetime parole for drug sellers.

If one is wondering how the laws (called the Rockefeller laws because of their instigation by then Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller) have worked, the answer is to be found in that incident. For when all the statistics are sifter, all the bills tallied, all the pros proffered and cons considered, rising from the rubble of paperwork are that incident and its inescapable message: today, after some 2,000 persons have received indefinite life sentences for selling illicit substances, it is as easy to get drugs in New York City and other parts of the state as it was four years ago and more than $141 million ago. It's probably easier.

The narcs concede it. So do the politicians and administrators of "criminal justice." New York City newspaper reporters almost routinely go out looking for drugs just so they can tell their readers how easy it is. With all the reporters and undercover agents in those crowds, it's a wonder there's anything left for the drug users.

In 1973, the popular estimate of the habitual hard-drug-user population in New York City was 150,000 to 300,000. It seemed a safe enough range, but some researchers thought it was low. Richard Ashley, in his 1972 book, Heroin: The Myths and the Facts, conservatively put the estimate at 360,000. This was before enactment of the nation's toughest drug laws. In 1976, according to the N.Y. Office of Drug Abuse Services, there were 230,530 "narcotic addicts" statewide and another 333,570 "abusers of non-narcotic drugs," including cocaine, glue, amphetamines, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and LSD.

There are good reasons to assume that official bodies tend to underestimate such things. For one, counting drug users is not an easy task. By definition, it is counting criminals. Sterling Johnson, again keeping a safe span, estimates the current New York City "addict" population to be from 400,000 to 800,000.

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