The Rockefeller Drug Laws 20 Years Later
Testimony of Michael Letwin, Esq., President
The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys
Before the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Codes
June 4, 1993
My name is Michael Letwin. I am president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, which for nearly 25 years has represented Staff Attorneys at the Legal Aid Society of New York, who each year represent 200,000 clients in criminal cases.
From 1985 through 1990, 1 was a Staff Attorney at the Society’s Criminal Defense Division in Brooklyn, during which time I handled some 1,000 cases, the vast majority of them narcotics offense or in some way related to narcotics. I have researched and written on crime, drug policy, and police abuse, including a law review article focusing on the impact of the NYPD’s Tactical Narcotics Teams (TNT), and several op-ed pieces on the “drug war”in New York and other cities.
The views I express today about alternatives to current drug policy are my own. However, it is practically undisputed among those of us who work in the criminal justice system that the Rockefeller drug laws — and the “drug war” — generally has utterly failed to prevent drug abuse or related crime, both of which have soared during the 1980s.
Thus, despite a seemingly endless number of arrests, prosecutions and heavy sentences, the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services reported in July 1992 that hospital treatment for cocaine and heroin was up sharply in New York City and that drug dealers were simultaneously expanding operations and dropping prices to all-time low of 75 cents per dose.
The drug war doesn’t work for the simple reason that it can’t compete with the incredibly powerful dynamics which generate the use and sale of drugs such as crack. On the one hand, extreme and deepening inner-city poverty and hopelessness of the 1980s have driven many young people to find solace in a cheap, but short-lived crack high.
Moreover, as during alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s, drug prohibition has exploded profits in crack and other drugs which have lured young people into a low-level drug trade that seems to offer much more money, power and prestige than unemployment or McDonalds wages.
For communities in which many young people lack hope for a real future, draconian mandatory minimum sentencing exemplified by the Rockefeller drug laws is not a deterrent, but only the cost of doing business.
Rather than deter crime, the drug war creates crime. Making crack illegal grossly inflates its price, and leads abusers to commit robbery and other crimes to get the money to buy the drug. The profits generated by the war have given birth to a Prohibition-style turf war that has boosted New York City’s homicide rate above 2000. A 1988 study found that half of these homicides were drug-related and that three-quarters of those were drug-trade related.
There is also little doubt but that the drug war exemplified by TNT — arrests, prosecution, draconian sentencing and criminal records — has a disproportionately destructive impact on people of color. Those of us who work in the City’s criminal justice have found that the drug war has routinely subjected inner-city communities to illegal search and seizure; indiscriminate arrest sweeps and false prosecutions; and physical abuse and unjustified shootings by police.
This “war” on the streets is only the initial criminal justice funnel which puts almost one in four young African American men in New York to be in jail, prison, on probation, or parole, a rate of incarceration higher than any other advanced industrial country — including South Africa.
As reflected in numerous public revelations in recent years, these realities are not primarily symptoms of individual wrongdoing, but rather of a Vietnam-style drug war, complete with body count measures of “success” waged almost entirely on people of color in New York’s inner-city communities. Such facts give new meaning to the finding of the Judicial Commission on Minorities that New York’s justice system is infested with racism.”
Moreover, the enormous financial cost of this ineffective and destructive war is paid for by the scarcity of drug treatment, the near collapse of education, healthcare, libraries, housing and transportation. Given these facts, every step away from the drug war is welcome and badly needed, including an end to mandatory sentencing for drug offenses and the provision of treatment on demand.
But the real alternative to criminalization is decriminalization, i.e. to treat drug abuse as a health and social — not a criminal justice — problem. Decriminalization would dramatically deflate the crime and violence that accompany drugs such as crack, just as end of Prohibition did so in regard to alcohol. It would also save a generation of young people of color from being mauled by the criminal justice system machine.
Many have expressed the fear that decriminalization might encourage drug abuse, especially among minority youth already at risk. In the view of myself and many of my colleagues, however, who have witnessed the destructive impact of the war on drugs firsthand, these objections are outweighed by several key facts.
First, as discussed above, drugs such as crack are already widely available and abuse is already increasing. In other words, people who want to use crack do so regardless of the law.
Second, numerous statistics reflect the fact that the consequences of criminalization, as discussed above, are far worse than the inherent pharmacological consequences drug abuse. For example, the federal government claims that there were about 10,000 deaths from all illegal drugs in 1989.
Even assuming the accuracy of that number, it stands in shockingly stark contrast to the 400,000 people in the United States killed annually by legal tobacco (50,000 of them from secondhand smoke alone), and to the 100,000 Americans killed each year by legal alcohol. In addition, recent research has found that the real danger to babies is not crack, but rather alcohol and poverty.
In other words, when prohibition generated crime, violence and criminal justice system damage to our population is taken into account, it become clear that drug war policies are responsible for far more damage than the drugs themselves.
Thus, the real solution to drug abuse is to accompany drug decriminalization with a real war against abuse which includes treatment on demand, a ban on profit from or advertisement for crack-type drugs, and above all, a broad program of racial and economic justice.
Letwin, Report From the Front Line: The Bennett Plan, Street-Level Drug Enforcement in New York City and the Legalization Debate, 18 Hofstra L. Rev. 3, 795 (1990).
Letwin, Wrong Way to Fight Crime, N.Y. Times, Oct. 6, 1990; Letwin, N. Y, Justice: Not Color Blind, N.Y. Times, Sept. 29, 1989; Letwin, About Los Angeles, This Means War, N.Y. Newsday, May 4, 1992; Letwin, Our Drug Laws Are to Blame, N.Y. Newsday, Aug. 30, 1990.