The Rockefeller Drug Laws are 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 or possessing four ounces (approximately 113 grams) or more of the same substances, was 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 The section of the laws applying to marijuana was repealed in 1979, under the Democratic Governor Hugh Carey.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. Economist Murray Rothbard called the laws "draconian: long jail sentences for heroin pushers and addicts. The Rockefeller program, which of course proved finally to be a fiasco, was the epitome of the belief in treating a social or medical problem with jail and the billy club." 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.
In his first State of the State address in January 2009, New York Governor David Paterson was critical of the Rockefeller drug laws, stating, "I can’t think of a criminal justice strategy that has been more unsuccessful than the Rockefeller drug laws."
In April 2009, these laws were revised to remove the mandatory minimum sentences. This change allows judges to sentence individuals convicted of drug offences to treatment or to short sentences. Also, the sentencing was made retroactive, which allows more than 1000 imprisoned convicts to apply to a court to resentence and possibly release them.
New York City remains the cannabis-arrest capital of the world, with over 40,000 arrests in 2008. Despite New York's decriminalization of simple possession, New York City police arrest suspects for possession in public view, which remains a misdemeanor. During a Terry stop, officers may falsely suggest that a suspect should voluntarily reveal contraband to avoid arrest, then arrest the suspect if he reveals cannabis to public view. In 2008, the New York Civil Liberties Union criticized the crackdown for its cost and scope, its reliance on stop-and-frisks and police coercion to escalate simple possession into an arrestable offense, and the disproportionate number of young, black and Latino males arrested.