Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms of 2009

Subject: Law
Pages: 5
Words: 1382
Reading time:
5 min
Study level: College


The Rockefeller drug laws have remained the main drug legislation in the country for several decades before the first attempts to enhance its effectiveness were made in the 2000s. The enactment of the Drug Law Reform in 2009 was predetermined by the peculiarities of the social, economic, and legal environment.

Social and physical environmental factors

Considering the situation with drug abuse and drug business in America of the 1980s, it can be stated that the Rockefeller drug laws were the measures forced by the public concerned with the problem. Still, by the beginning of the 2000s, the obsoleteness of these draconian laws became obvious, predetermining the enactment of the Drug Law Reform in 2009.

Increasing the inmate population by applying harsh punishments to all individuals involved in drug abuse and trade business, the Rockefeller drug laws failed to achieve the primary goal of affecting the big players. The inmate population was dominated by the addicted and small traders. Lawson (2009-2010) noted that “drug arrests have tripled since 1980, with more than four-fifths being for simple possession violations” (p. 202). Arrests of individuals having small amounts of drugs for their personal use only did not allow struggling against the main cause of drug addiction and sale as social phenomena of modern society. Incarceration of addicted individuals was useless for solving the main problem of drug trading. According to the statistics data, “in 2005, four of five (81.7%) drug arrests were for possession and one of five (18.3%) for sales.

Overall, 42.6% of drug arrests were for marijuana offenses” (Lawson, 2009-2010, p. 202). Thus, it can be stated that concentration on punishing the addicted individuals did not allow appropriately use the police resources. The Rockefeller drug laws were also blamed for discriminating against the prisoners of color and the female inmate population. The Drug Law reform of 2009 was supposed to compensate for these drawbacks in legislation that violated the human rights of certain prisoners groups. The public appetite for using and making business on illegal drug trade was one of the central social factors which allowed preserving the harsh and discriminative punishments for more than 30 years. With the legitimacy of its objective, the approach has survived for decades, wasting plenty of resources, ruining the lives of the addicted that became the victims of the illegal drug trade, and did not solve the social problems of addiction and illegal trade.

Thus, the enormous increase of the inmate population, the prevalence of arrests for possession than for trade, and the discrimination of the black and female prisoners were the central aspects that affected the social environment of the policy under consideration and preconditioned the enactment of the Drug Law Reform in 2009.

Economic factors

Taking into account the increase of the inmate population and the ineffectiveness of the Rockefeller draconian laws for solving the main problem of dealing with illegal drug trading, the state resources were used inappropriately under the Rockefeller laws.

Incarceration of the addicted for possessing small amounts of drugs for their personal use only and application of the prolonged imprisonment of the increased inmate population was rather costly. By the way, not solving the problem of treating the addiction, the draconian punishments were to be followed by rehabilitation programs. The Dug Law Reform meliorated the legislation to a certain extent and attempted to shift the burden from the victims towards the main causes of the existing situation. Thus, it can be stated that the Rockefeller drug law reform which involves particular groups of addicted individuals into the treatment programs instead of incarcerating them is a more wise strategy for solving the social problem and economizing the state costs at the same time. The drug law reform also pays special attention to those who are arrested for the second time. Thus, imposing shorter sentences for second-time offenders or even placing them for a probation period allows economizing the resources and selecting a more appropriate way for punishing and treating the prisoner. Another important economic effect of the drug law reform is the resentencing of the prisoners who were imprisoned before the enactment of a new law in 2009.

Walder (2010) noted that “The 2009 reforms also have resulted in the resentencing of 421 B-level drug felons. Of those, 327 have been released” (NY reform saved 1 000 drug offenders from prison in the first year). Thus, the reforms were supposed not only to improve the existing legislation and avoid the mistakes of the past but also where it is possible to eliminate the errors of the previous several decades of the draconian drug laws. Changing the sentencing pattern for the drug offenders and resentencing the B-level drug felons, the drug law reform of 2009 allows economizing the state costs required for incarcerating and treating the drug offenders sentenced for prolonged periods. Though the enactment of reform concurs with the period of economic crisis, the crisis itself can be regarded as only additional circumstance enforcing the enactment of reform, while understanding of the obsoleteness of Rockefeller laws can be regarded as the main cause of reforming the current drug legislation.

Thus, the burden and ineffectiveness of the prolonged sentences for drug offenders and the economic crisis are the main factors defining the economic environment of the Drug Law Reform Act of 2009.

The draconian measures of the war on drugs which are known as the Rockefeller drug laws had certain positive and negative legal implications. Systematizing the prior scattered drug legislation, defining the levels of offenses and illegal substances, the Rockefeller laws were beneficial for their time. However, the choice of the draconian methods disregarding their ineffectiveness and economical burden and discrimination of the black and female prisoners were the negative legal implications which to some extent were eliminated by the reform law act of 2009.

The 1973 drug law reform which was signed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller systematized the existing legislation by classifying the drug substances, offenses, and corresponding punishments for them. That act offered life imprisonment for a class A felony. With the reasonable objectives of affecting the big players of illegal drug trading as the main underlying cause of the social problem of drug addiction and trading, these laws were unsuccessful in meeting these goals. Bearing the name of the governor who signed the law, these laws had certain political implications reflecting Rockefeller’s strategies. Though as the beginning of the war on drugs, these aggressive measures could be beneficial for improving the governor’s reputation, the time lag allows evaluating these laws more critically. As a significant part of the governor’s political strategies, the drug legislation has become history associated with the name of Rockefeller with all its positive and negative implications.

The fact that the same course of the war on drugs has been preserved for three decades demonstrates Rockefeller’s authority for his followers. It was only in the early 2000s that the legislators and politicians realized the ineffectiveness and inappropriateness of the chosen strategies which have hardly been questioned previously. A struggle that concentrated on the addicted individuals mostly instead of dealing with the big players of the drug trading business continued for several decades. Discriminating the female and black inmate population, the Rockefeller laws violated the basic principles of equal rights for all citizens which were proclaimed in other legislative acts. The Drug Law Reform Act of 2009 was intended at eliminating the main inconsistencies in the existing drug legislation, shifting the emphasis from the arrests for possession towards arrests for trading and involving the addicted individuals into the rehabilitation programs to enhance the effectiveness of the imposed measures and handle the problem of illegal drug trading instead of attacking its consequences.

Thus, particular inconsistencies in the Rockefeller drug laws violating the principles of providing equal rights for all citizens define the legislative environment for the Drug Law Reform Act of 2009.


The socio-economic and legal environment of the state has revealed the ineffectiveness of the 1973 Rockefeller drug laws and the necessity for making changes in the existing legislation. The enactment of the Drug Law Reform in 2009 was aimed at getting to the roots of the social problem of illegal drug trading, decreasing the economic burden of the prolonged sentences, and eliminating particular discriminative inconsistencies in the Rockefeller drug laws.

Reference List

Lawson, R. (2009-2010). Drug law reform – retreating from an incarceration addiction. Kentucky Law Journal, 98: P, 201- 259.

Walder, N. (October 2010). NY reform saved 1 000 drug offenders from prison in first year, report says. New York Law Journal.