New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws are notorious for their severity, for increasing the criminalization of drug addiction, and for leading to immense racial disparities in the individuals who ended up in jail and in the individuals who were subject to severe mandatory sentences. The Rockefeller Drug Laws were enacted in the 70s during the “war on drugs” and were implemented in other states as well as part of the movement.

Since the war on drugs, individuals often faced draconian mandatory sentences with few options to mount a drug defense in court. Even the most skilled drug defense law firms like Goldberg & Allen LLP would have had difficulty in the height of the war on drugs in helping an individual avoid what many considered unfair sentencing practices during the era.

According to the Huffington Post, as a result of these laws, the U.S. became the world’s number one leader in individuals locked behind bars. In 2009, New York reformed the Rockefeller Drug Laws, promising to study the effects of the changes in the hopes that this would lead to fairer sentencing and fewer racial biases.

Yet, the question remains—have the reforms worked?

According to the Huffington Post, marijuana possession is the number one reason individuals get arrested in New York City, and when individuals are arrested, they tend to be black or Hispanic. Accidental overdose is the number one cause of death in New York City, yet it is often untreated because individuals are frightened that calling an ambulance will result in arrest. In many cases, lives could have been saved had individuals chosen to call 911.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, new changes to the reforms will emphasize evidence-based drug education programs and health programs to help individuals who are suffering from addiction. The focus of the program will be prevention of overdoses and the health and safety of those who are addicted to drugs. The emphasis of the program will be harm-reduction, rather than mandatory sentences for drug use or possession. The Drug Policy Alliance hopes that the reforms will undo the negative effects of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, effects that still affect the citizens of New York to this day.

According to the Washington Times, in order to coordinate the effort of multiple agencies and public stakeholders, New York will enact a drug strategy agency to coordinate multiple efforts. The goal of the agency will be to move from punitive drug control strategies, to strategies based on treatment and public safety.

Mayor de Blasio explains that treatment centers could have the potential of helping individuals before they enter the justice system. The treatment centers could be alternatives to current drug possession punishment that includes incarceration. For instance, the program will continue to support needle exchange programs and work to balance these programs with current laws against needle possession.


Yet, current law enforcement doesn’t always make individuals feel protected from current needle laws. For instance, an exemption system currently in place requires individuals to carry an anonymous card. In a situation where a person is being arrested, proving membership in the exemption program can often be difficult.

It is likely to be many years before the reforms begin to play a role in protecting vulnerable drug addicted citizens. Until this happens, individuals are likely to still face incarceration rather than receive the treatment and prevention that the law provides and that they deserve. For individuals who have been arrested for drug use or drug prevention, finding a skilled drug defense lawyer can mean the difference between incarceration and treatment. A skilled drug defense lawyer can ensure that individuals are protected under current reforms and ensure that these individuals who deserve treatment do not become an incarcerated statistic lost in the system.

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