Latest Drug War News

GoodShop: You Shop...We Give!

Shop online at and a percentage of each purchase will be donated to our cause! More than 600 top stores are participating!

The Internet Our Website

Global and National Events Calendar

Bottoms Up: Guide to Grassroots Activism

Prisons and Poisons

November Coalition Projects

Get on the Soapbox! with Soap for Change

November Coalition: We Have Issues!

November Coalition Local Scenes

November Coalition Multimedia Archive

The Razor Wire
Bring Back Federal Parole!
November Coalition: Our House

Stories from Behind The WALL

November Coalition: Nora's Blog

March 14, 2006 - New York Times

When It Comes to Drug Laws, the Jokes End

By Clyde Haberman

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

THE word is that the city wants to put retail shops at the Brooklyn House of Detention. Whatever the commercial merits of this plan, the potential for one-liners is obvious.

How about a bank at the jail? It could be called Pen and Teller. If a Blockbuster outlet moved in, should it be forbidden to carry "The Great Escape"? Would a bakery be allowed, given the hacksaw-hiding possibilities?

Kidding aside, one idea that should probably be ruled out from the get-go is a drugstore. Drugs, albeit the illicit variety, were what landed many of the prisoners behind bars in the first place. No need to rub it in.

For decades, New York State has socked drug offenders with some of the stiffest penalties in the land. The Rockefeller drug laws, they are commonly called. They bear the name of Nelson A. Rockefeller, who was governor in the early 1970's, an era of rising crime rates and a prevailing "lock 'em up and throw away the key" spirit.

For many New Yorkers, that remains the mood. But the Rockefeller laws were deemed so harsh, with life sentences possible even for some small fry, that they became politically unsustainable.

Albany being Albany, change was exceedingly slow in coming. It did arrive, though, at the end of 2004. Revisions of the laws reduced the steepest prison sentences. Additional recalibrations last summer softened the penalties some more.

But to critics of the laws, those actions amounted to tinkering at the edges, a boon to a few hundred people. State prison rolls may have shrunk from their 1990's peaks, but thousands of nonviolent drug offenders are still put away each year.

As some critics see it "and some in government as well" those offenders would be better served in treatment centers. It would also be better, they say, for taxpayers, who pay the freight. A detox ward costs a lot less to run than a cellblock at Attica.

So Rockefeller reform remains a work in progress. State Senate and Assembly leaders say through aides that they are committed to further change. Chauncey G. Parker, the state's criminal justice director, says that while progress has been made on drug policy, "we're always ready to be at the table to discuss ways" to do more.

In the Assembly, a bill sponsored by Jeffrion L. Aubry, a Queens Democrat, would strip district attorneys of some power. Judges would get the latitude they once had, and lost, to decide if a drug law violator " not to mention the rest of us " would be better served by treatment instead of prison.

How quickly might Albany act, if at all? Do you really need to ask? We're talking about Albany. "It's not easy," Mr. Aubry said the other day. "I'm looking for incremental change."

He said this after taking part in a symposium at the New School, sponsored by the school and the Correctional Association of New York. Most of the 100 or so people on hand, it seemed safe to say, would change the existing statutes in a heartbeat.

They murmured approval when Robert Gangi, the executive director of the Correctional Association, described the Rockefeller laws as "wasteful," "ineffective," "unjust" and "marked by racial bias."

Clearly in the minority at this gathering was Bridget G. Brennan, the city's special narcotics prosecutor. "I'm not going to stand here and tell you that we can incarcerate our way out of the drug problem," Ms. Brennan said.

But let's not fool ourselves, she added. Many who land in jail are not poor schmoes caught with a few grains of cocaine. "Narcotics goes hand in hand with violence," she said. "It goes hand in hand with other crimes."

That being the case, the "lock 'em up" mood is not about to fade away, said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

"The war on drugs has failed," Mr. Butts told the audience. If it were up to him, the present laws would be scrapped. But in Harlem, as elsewhere, many just want drug dealers off the streets, whatever it takes. "That's a tough mind-set to change," he said.

Like others, Mr. Butts said he preferred drug treatment to a house of detention. He cited the case of a substance abuser who, thanks to sound guidance, pulled himself together.

Approve of him or not, that fellow now sits in the White House.


For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below

We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.

The Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Drug Sense and The Media Awareness Project

Working to end drug war injustice

Meet the People Behind The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines

Questions or problems? Contact