The Nation’s Toughest Drug Law


In the modern and developing world, probably everyone has heard about drugs. The word “drug” from the very beginning was intended to characterize any psychoactive element with any sleep-inducing or anabolic effect. Later on, along with our developing world, this word became associated more with the opioids, in most cases, with morphine and heroin as well as with their derivatives, such as hydrocodone (Julien, 2008, p. 537).

At the end of the 20th century, drugs became the real disease of the society. More and more people were getting addicted to it, but not many could give it up. As the drug offenders started to spread all over the country, the strong need in the stem laws appeared. One of these laws, sometimes even called “The Nation’s Toughest Drug Law”, was the 1973 New York Rockefeller Drug law.


This law contained three major conditions designed to incapacitate drug criminals and to stem future drug use. The first provision was mandatory and stipulated long prison terms for heroin dealers. The next one concerned confinements on plea bargaining for drug offenders. The last provision had mandatory prison terms for certain categories of constant and repetitive criminals.

These methods were something immense and unbelievable at that period of time, but in the today’s world it is very hard to astonish somebody with such things.

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The law established three categories of drug dealers:

  • A-I offenders. This class consists of major dealers, people who sold one ounce of heroin or possessed two or more ounces. This class of offenders would serve minimum prison terms of 15 or 25 years with the maximum term of life imprisonment.
  • A-II offenders. Middle-level dealers, those who sold one-eighth of an ounce of heroin or possessed one to two ounces. They would serve at least 6 to 8 and one-third years and a maximum of life imprisonment.
  • A-III criminals. Minor street dealers. Anyone who sold less than one-eighth of an ounce of heroin or possessed up to one ounce of drug. These people would serve from at least one to eight and one-third years to a maximum term of life imprisonment.

In general, any drug offender will definitely go to prison and would face the real possibility of life imprisonment, but under the “old” drug law lifetime imprisonments were very rare: only with a large amounts of drugs a person could be sentenced to lifetime imprisonment. However, the new drug law made this figure a lot bigger – 1777 persons were convicted and sentenced to the lifetime terms (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2010, p. 162).

The law was also preventing the plea bargaining. For example, anyone arrested for A-I crime could ask for A-III charge, but A-III people could not plead to anything lower. It also included some changes in the habitual-criminal provision, imposing mandatory prison terms on anyone with a prior crime conviction. To cope with an increase in the courts’ workload, New York added 49 new judges.

However, practically every law has some inadvertence, and 1973 Rockefeller Drug law was not the exception. In theory, everything was just fine, but in practice the law was “a paper tiger” in some way: not in all aspects, but, nevertheless, in some important ones. One of them was the significant amount of slippage between arrest and conviction. For example, between 1972 and 1976 the percentage of drug arrests leading to indictment declined from 39 percent to only 25 percent. Also, the percentage of indictments resulting in conviction fell from 86 percent to 80 percent. The overall percentage of arrest leading to conviction fell from 33.5 percent to 20 percent. The next big thing was the fact that an important part of the slippage occurred after sentencing. The result of it was a serious prisons overcrowding as more and more people were sentenced to longer terms. For instance, the California prison crisis in 2008-2009 was the worst in the country. This led to releasing prisoners early through a variety of different methods and schemes.

However, the most important problem of the law was that it had no significant effect on crime statistics of drug use events. For instance, serious property crimes, generally associated with the heroin users, had the 15 percent increase between 1973 and 1975 period. Also, despite the endeavor of the law, it could not stop the crack cocaine epidemic striking New York City in the late 1980s. It is important to outline that similar changes have been observed in a neighboring states.

According to the National Household Survey, drug use began to decline in the late 1980s. Albeit this trend was nationwide, it would be a mistake to say that the 1973 New York law had any special impact on that tendency.

However, the law did not completely fail to reach its primary goals. For convicted ones, the rate of incarceration went up from 33 to 55 percent. If only 55 percent were going to prison, about 25 percent of them were evading the mandatory sentencing provisions. To be frank, not much changed in terms of this aspect. The percentage of people arrested for sale of drug who were imprisoned was about 11 percent in 1972-1973 and the same 11 percent in 1976. So, no changes happened in 3-4 years. In spite of the obvious slippage in the convicted offenders’ number, the percent of criminals who were convicted and received a sentence term of three or more years changed from 3 to 22 percent. This was actually the most significant and important effect of the law (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2010, p. 163).

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The enormous rise in the potential prison terms meanwhile encouraged defense attorneys to go to trial. The percentage of the attorneys rose from 6 to 15 percent.

Disposition time for all drug cases doubled under the new law in spite of the addition of the new judgeships. For some unexplained reasons, the new courts appeared noticeably less efficient than the old courts had been.

The 1973 Rockefeller Drug law had a serious long-term impact and some further reforms. Even with a considerable slippage, the law led to a dramatic increase in the number of people imprisoned for drug charges. It is also very important to point out that this law hit more some minor street drug dealers than major criminals. Moreover, most prisoners were imprisoned disproportionately to the harm and the social effect of their crime. As it has been said before, one of the negative effects of that law was a serious overcrowding of prisons with all the associated costs (525 million dollars a year in the New York City). What is interesting about the law is that African Americans and Latinos nations represented 90 percent of those imprisoned people.

“The Nation’s Toughest Drug Law” had no effect on bail practices because they remained the same before and after the implementation of the law.

The next important thing is that the total number of drug criminals’ convictions in the courts from 1974 to 1976 was actually lower than it would have been expected during the same period, but under the “old” law. There were 5800 convictions in the 1974-1976 period.

Moreover, the time to process all drug cases increased drastically. It happened mainly because of two reasons:

  • The demand for trials rose roughly. In 1972-1973, only 6 percent of all drug cases in the New York City were disposed of by trial. Under the new 1973 law, that number rose to 16 percent. The interesting thing is that non-drug cases increased as well, from 6 to 12 percent.
  • The real productivity of new courts created under the new 1973 law failed to match that of established courts. If the new courts had matched the established productivity, there would have been a very small growth in the drug felony.

As a result of such delays, mostly in the New York City, fewer drug cases were disposed of between 1974 and 1976 than before the new law implementation. However, prison sentences grew up drastically in several counties.

The law had some administrative problems as well. Police and prosecutors perceived the law as a “new drain” on resources. In their eyes, the law was already inadequate, but court congestions were not reduced even after putting into operation a large amount of new resources (Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation, U.S. National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1978, p.26).

Some prospective for the law, which appeared in 1976, should also be mentioned. So, first of all, the neighborhood protection policy should be taken into consideration. The point is that the biggest part of drugs on the street was due to A-III criminals. As it has been mentioned in the paper, the A-III offenders could not plead for the lower charge, so the huge amount of their arrests would have led to the inevitable court overload. However, in 1976 the police authorities of the New York City were able to change their enforcement policy. Now, the police officers could check the most dangerous and notorious areas of drug trade and confront small drug dealers and some drug purchases with quite a high risk of imprisonment. Moreover, such visits were made on the regular basis (Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation, U.S. National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1978, p.27).

It is important to outline that such visits were not very effective in terms of the drug trade elimination, but they had one noticeable and important impact. Such areas were becoming less popular among drug offenders and, therefore, the criminal activity in such areas was decreasing. It helped the desperate and hopeless innocent people who lived in that neighborhood and suffered from the criminal, thus improving their lives.

Another consequential fact concerns predicate felony administration. It could be improved if the prosecutor could study the history of previous offender’s convictions. Nowadays, the history of past convictions available to the court is not always complete, which complicates the situation.

The interesting fact is that between 1971 and 1975 the percentage of non-drug crimes fell in the New York state. The main impulse of it was the belief that drugs are the main source of all felonies committed. So, if drug users were responsible for fewer crimes, then the resources available to fight the delinquency could be allocated more effectively (Joint Committee on New York Drug Law Evaluation, U.S. National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1978, p.29).

The 2009 reforms should be mentioned as well. They reduced penalties in some different ways, for instance, by cancelling mandatory sentencing for the first time class B, C, D, and E drug related felonies. The next example can be expansion of drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration. It also allowed resentencing about 1600 current offenders in specific categories. However, mandatory prison sentences for the most violent offenders of A-I and A-II levels remained the same. The important circumstance is that about 20 percent of A class offenders got discretionary non-prison sentences because of their being informants or because of their 16-18-year age (Lilly, Cullen, & Ball, 2010, p. 164).

One may actually ask if the 2009 reforms made a big difference. It is hard to answer this question straight away because it is just too early to say anything. At first, we should monitor the statistics of drug offenders sentenced to prison as well as the prison population itself. Moreover, the number of life imprisonment should be taken into consideration.


Only after few years from now, it would be obvious whether these reforms have made some noticeable impact or not, but nevertheless the path of improvement way has already been chosen.

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