#195 NYT Recognizes, But Doesn’t Understand, Move For Reform

Date: Sun, 21 Jan 2001
Subject: # 195 NYT Recognizes, But Doesn’t Understand, Move For Reform

NYT Recognizes, But Doesn’t Understand, Move For Reform


DrugSense FOCUS Alert #195 Sunday January 21, 2001

As New York Governor George Pataki calls for state drug law reform,
the New York Times has decided to analyze the reasons why. The article
(below) suggests that because crime rates are down, people are more
tolerant of drug users, so they support lightening

Whatever truth there may be in that perspective, the article does not
mention the fact that the drug war as a whole always creates more
problems than solutions, and that more and more people are arriving at
this inescapable conclusion.

Please write a letter to the NYT to say it’s good to see coverage of
drug law reform, but that the problem isn’t just with New York drug
laws – it’s the drug war itself.


It’s not what others do it’s what YOU do


Phone, fax etc.)

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This is VERY IMPORTANT as it is the only way we have of gauging our
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Source: New York Times (NY)
Contact: letters@nytimes.com



US NY: Signs Of A Thaw In The War On Drugs
URL: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v01.n115.a08.html
Newshawk: Rob Ryan
Pubdate: Sun, 21 Jan 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Contact: letters@nytimes.com
Address: 229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Website: http://www.nytimes.com/
Forum: http://forums.nytimes.com/comment/
Author: James C. Mckinley Jr.


ALBANY, Jan 20 — Three recent events hint at a change in public
attitudes toward the war on drugs. On Wednesday, Gov. George E. Pataki
proposed softening the harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws in New York
State. Gov. Christie Whitman of New Jersey acknowledged that her state
police had been stopping black and Hispanic drivers as part of a
drug-enforcement effort the public once applauded and moved to stop
the practice.

And within the last two weeks President Clinton has not only urged a
re-examination of federal drug sentencing, but also proposed
equalizing penalties for possession of powdered and crack cocaine, on
the ground that the stiffer penalties for crack discriminated against
members of ethnic minorities.

If politicians are societal weather vanes, then the war on drugs seems
to be losing some appeal.

For decades, experts on drug addiction have argued that long prison
terms for nonviolent drug offenders, many of whom are addicts as well,
are less effective than drug-treatment programs at reducing crime.
They also say imprisonment is more expensive than treatment.

The country’s prison population has grown to two million, and a
quarter of the inmates are serving time for drug offenses.

Until recently, though, these arguments have failed to move many
Americans or their public officials. But now the cause is being joined
by Republican governors and an outgoing president who greatly expanded
federal financing for drug interdiction and local law enforcement, and
gave $1 billion to help the Colombian military attack cocaine

Why are critics of the drug war making headway now? The answer,
criminologists and other experts say, may lie in the waning of the
public’s fear of crime.

Fear begets intolerance. People and the politicians they elect are
more willing to put up with severe penalties for relatively minor drug
offenses when crime rates are high, as it was in New York City in the
late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the period that produced the Rockefeller

At the time, heavy heroin use in the city was widely blamed for
rapidly increasing property crime.

The city experienced another, more murderous, crime wave in the late
80’s and early 90’s when crack cocaine became popular.

City officials responded with a huge expansion of the police force and
an aggressive campaign against street dealers and people carrying
concealed guns.

Now, though, crime has declined steadily for several years, and
violent crime in New York City has reached its lowest levels since
1967. Fear has eased, and the public has begun to question some
harsher elements of the war on drugs and crime. “There is a pretty
clear correlation between the crime rate and criticism of
law-enforcement officials for being too tough,” said the director of
the Jerry Lee Criminology Center at the University of Pennsylvania,
Lawrence Sherman. “As crime rates drop, you see more people
complaining about the cops.”

At the same time, legions of people whose children are serving lengthy
sentences under the Rockefeller laws have begun making their presence
felt in Albany. Many are black and Latino, and many maintain that the
laws, as enforced, discriminate against their ethnic groups. More than
21,000 people are serving time for drug convictions in New York State,
about 95 percent of whom are black or Hispanic. About 70 percent were
convicted of nonviolent crimes.

“Where is the sanity?” asks Mary Mortimer of New York City, who has
two sons serving prison time, one 15 to 30 years, the other 10 to 20,
both for possession of small amounts of cocaine with intent to sell.
“I’d like to be able to spend some time with my sons on this earth
before I leave here.”

These days Mr. Pataki can afford the political consequences of
listening to Mary Mortimer and people like her. After six years in
office, his reputation as a tough-on-crime governor is well
established. He pushed for and signed the death penalty back into law,
he increased sentences for many crimes, and he eliminated parole for
violent crimes.

The governor may also be reacting to the political winds from other
parts of the country as well. In November, California voters passed a
proposition requiring the state to direct most people convicted of
nonviolent drug possession into treatment programs rather than prison.

Arizona passed a similar law, and the governor of New Mexico has said
he plans to introduce comparable changes this year. Even some New York
legislators who voted for the Rockefeller laws in 1973 now advocate
their repeal. John R. Dunne, a former state senator from Long Island,
has formed a coalition to lobby the governor with other former state
lawmakers, including Warren Anderson, who was Senate majority leader
from Binghamton.

In the early 70’s, besides the heroin epidemic, Gov. Nelson A.
Rockefeller was faced with a youthful counter-culture, particularly in
New York City, that often celebrated “sex, drugs and rock and roll,”
as a line from a popular song put it.

Governor Rockefeller, a liberal Republican, first tried to persuade
the Legislature to create the Narcotics Addiction Control Commission
and establish secure residential treatment centers around the state.

He also started methadone clinics for addicts.

Those efforts proved costly and failed to reduce crime.

So in 1973, a frustrated Mr. Rockefeller proposed the “lock them up
and throw away the key” approach.

Some historians have said that Mr. Rockefeller had his eye on the
presidency and hoped to appear more conservative. In any case, he
persuaded the Legislature, over the objections of some New York City
lawmakers, to pass the laws that carry his name.

At the time, the state had 12,000 state prison inmates.

Today it has 70,000. Oddly enough, the laws put the state out of step
with the times.

In 1970, Congress had liberalized the harsh drug laws passed in the
mid-1950’s, eliminating many mandatory sentences for drug offenses and
repealing the death penalty for heroin dealers who sold to minors.

In 1977, President Carter formally advocated legalizing marijuana in
amounts up to an ounce.

It was not until 1986, after the effects of the cocaine craze of the
early 1980’s had begun to materialize, that Congress passed tough drug
laws with mandatory sentences and the death penalty for what were
called drug kingpins.

Crack addiction and drive-by shootings dominated the

The war on drugs was back with a vengeance, and the Rockefeller laws
once again meshed with the tenor of the times.

Judging by Mr. Pataki’s latest proposal, however, the pendulum has
begun to swing back the other way, in no small part, criminologists
say, because violent crime is down 40 percent in New York since he
took office. “The general public’s attitude is more tolerant because
the crime problem has been reduced so much,” said Dr. David F. Musto
of Yale University, an authority on the history of narcotics in America.

In calling for these changes, which go much farther than changes he
proposed in 1999, Governor Pataki is not abandoning his political roots.

What he has proposed falls far short of repeal of the Rockefeller
laws, a step that some critics have urged.

They want judges to have discretion in sentencing for all narcotics

They also complain that Mr. Pataki has not called for changing what
they see as the laws’ biggest problem, the fact that their mandatory
sentences are based on the weight of the drugs seized rather than on
the role of the person arrested.

So a low-level “mule,” addicted himself, who is hired to cart some
cocaine across town, can end up serving 15 years.

Mr. Pataki has proposed reducing the mandatory sentence for the top
class of drug offender to 10 years, from 15. The current laws impose a
15-year-to-life sentence for possession of more than four ounces of
cocaine or heroin or for sale of two ounces or more. Judges would have
discretion to send people to treatment only in the case of low-and
mid-level drug offenses.

One danger is that district attorneys, most of whom oppose weakening
the law, will stop charging people with the lesser offenses. “The key
to sentencing reform is giving judges discretion,” said Anita Marton
of the Legal Action Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization that
specializes in drug issues and has offices in New York and Washington.
“This tries to chip away at that but it doesn’t get to the heart of
the issue.

This proposal is not going to affect the vast majority of

If the debate in Albany or the vote in California is any indication,
the war on drugs is not likely to be abandoned altogether. No one on
either side of the debate over the Rockefeller drug laws is arguing
that violent drug dealers should be given lesser sentences or that
drugs should be legalized.

But if Governor Pataki and the Legislature reach an agreement on
changing the Rockefeller laws, the resulting legislation is likely to
resemble the California model.

The governor’s aim is to retain harsh penalties for violent felons but
move nonviolent addicts back into society. The hope is that the prison
population will then drop but that high crime rates will not return.

“The governor thinks it’s good policy, that this is something it is
time to do,” said a spokeswoman for Mr. Pataki, Caroline Quartararo.
“The crime rates are way down because we are locking up violent
offenders for a long period of time.”


To the editor:

While it’s always interesting to read about the declining appeal of
the drug war, I thought the analysis in “Signs of a thaw in the war on
drugs” (Jan. 21), missed a key point: As a miserable boondoggle
expands, more people will take notice and speak up. The war on drugs
grows year after year with more arrests and bigger budgets. For anyone
who is willing to take an honest look, it’s impossible to ignore the
counterproductive results that have been reaped from decades of
pushing for a “drug-free America.” The problem isn’t just with the
Rockefeller laws. Governor Pataki and other leaders who are finally
expressing some skepticism about some aspects of the drug war need to
reevaluate of the whole concept of drug prohibition, not just the details.

Stephen Young

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