We are independent & ad-supported. We may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
Advertiser Disclosure
Our website is an independent, advertising-supported platform. We provide our content free of charge to our readers, and to keep it that way, we rely on revenue generated through advertisements and affiliate partnerships. This means that when you click on certain links on our site and make a purchase, we may earn a commission. Learn more.
How We Make Money
We sustain our operations through affiliate commissions and advertising. If you click on an affiliate link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from the merchant at no additional cost to you. We also display advertisements on our website, which help generate revenue to support our work and keep our content free for readers. Our editorial team operates independently of our advertising and affiliate partnerships to ensure that our content remains unbiased and focused on providing you with the best information and recommendations based on thorough research and honest evaluations. To remain transparent, we’ve provided a list of our current affiliate partners here.

What are the Rockefeller Drug Laws?

By Dale Marshall
Updated May 17, 2024
Our promise to you
WiseGeek is dedicated to creating trustworthy, high-quality content that always prioritizes transparency, integrity, and inclusivity above all else. Our ensure that our content creation and review process includes rigorous fact-checking, evidence-based, and continual updates to ensure accuracy and reliability.

Our Promise to you

Founded in 2002, our company has been a trusted resource for readers seeking informative and engaging content. Our dedication to quality remains unwavering—and will never change. We follow a strict editorial policy, ensuring that our content is authored by highly qualified professionals and edited by subject matter experts. This guarantees that everything we publish is objective, accurate, and trustworthy.

Over the years, we've refined our approach to cover a wide range of topics, providing readers with reliable and practical advice to enhance their knowledge and skills. That's why millions of readers turn to us each year. Join us in celebrating the joy of learning, guided by standards you can trust.

Editorial Standards

At WiseGeek, we are committed to creating content that you can trust. Our editorial process is designed to ensure that every piece of content we publish is accurate, reliable, and informative.

Our team of experienced writers and editors follows a strict set of guidelines to ensure the highest quality content. We conduct thorough research, fact-check all information, and rely on credible sources to back up our claims. Our content is reviewed by subject-matter experts to ensure accuracy and clarity.

We believe in transparency and maintain editorial independence from our advertisers. Our team does not receive direct compensation from advertisers, allowing us to create unbiased content that prioritizes your interests.

The Rockefeller drug laws, named after New York's Governor Nelson Rockefeller, were a set of laws enacted in 1973 that imposed the nation's harshest penalties for the sale, possession, and use of illegal drugs. Their expressed intent was to deter the sale or use of such drugs, and to imprison those not deterred. Widely criticized for their severity, they were slowly reformed starting in 1979 and finally replaced completely in 2009.

The original laws imposed mandatory indeterminate penalties of at least 15 years to life for the possession of 4 ounces (114 g) or more of controlled substances, most commonly marijuana, heroin, and cocaine. The same sentences applied to the sale of 2 ounces (57 g) or more. These sentences were more or less the equivalent of those imposed for second degree murder, and judges were permitted no discretion to reduce sentences due to mitigating circumstances. The majority of those convicted under the new laws were low-level street dealers and addicts themselves.

Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, proposed the laws because in the early 1970s New York was faced with consistently escalating crime rates, and drug arrests in 1972 alone increased by more than 30%. The state had been exploring alternatives to incarceration, especially treatment, but these seemed ineffective. The governor faced escalating calls for harsher punishment of drug offenders, and he finally proposed these tough drug laws. Enacted in 1973 by the legislature after minimal negotiations, they quickly acquired the governor's name in the national lexicon. Some also believe that Rockefeller, seriously considering a run for the White House, was pandering to the "law and order" element within his party.

The Rockefeller drug laws were intended to have a deterrent effect on the sale and use of illegal drugs in the state, but drug arrests continued to climb, and the state's overall crime rate also showed no signs of declining. The laws' severity was useful in persuading some suspects to provide evidence against those they worked for, giving prosecutors tools to go after the criminal organizations and their bosses, who had generally escaped prosecution. The severity of even the minimum sentence, though, gave prosecutors little leeway in plea bargaining.

The impact of the Rockefeller drug laws on the state's prison population was dramatic. Before their enactment, only about 11% of state prisoners were drug offenders, but by the mid-1990s this percentage had climbed to about 35% in a prison population that itself had more than tripled from 20,000 to almost 65,000 prisoners. The overwhelming majority of imprisoned drug offenders, though, were non-violent dealers and addicts. Few major players in the drug trade were convicted under the Rockefeller drug laws.

Criticism of the laws began immediately upon their enactment and came from all points on the political spectrum. One of of the most common points was that they treated a social problem with punishment and jail. In 1979, in its first official response to this criticism, the state repealed that section of the law applying to marijuana, actually decriminalizing the possession of 7/8 oz (24.8 g) or less. It also increased the quantity of controlled substance sold or possessed necessary to trigger the minimum 15-years-to life sentence.

Despite continuing criticism and evidence of their ineffectiveness in combating illegal drug use, the Rockefeller drug laws remained unchanged until 2004, when they underwent the first of two major overhauls. Sentences were reduced, the weights necessary to trigger those sentences were again increased, and felons who had already been sentenced to life in prison were permitted to apply for re-sentencing. The laws were overhauled again in 2009, removing the minimum sentencing mandates altogether and giving judges the discretion to sentence first-time, non-violent offenders to alternative sentences such as treatment. Another major element of the 2009 overhaul allowed everyone who had been sentenced under the previous mandates to apply for re-sentencing or release.

The 2009 overhaul erased any similarity to the severely punitive Rockefeller drug laws. Those laws, in addition to incarcerating addicts and street dealers for extremely long sentences, also imposed unintended societal and fiscal consequences on New York and its taxpayers. For example, black males were jailed disproportionally to their representation in the population, in many cases depriving families of husbands, fathers, and breadwinners. The impact on the economy was also severe, converting many working taxpayers with drug addictions into long-term convicts requiring costly taxpayer-provided maintenance, and sometimes also converting their families to welfare recipients.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.

WiseGeek, in your inbox

Our latest articles, guides, and more, delivered daily.