In 1973, New York City’s Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller enacted legislation that stood in stark contrast to his former policies on drug use. Specifically, the governor formerly backed rehabilitation, job training, and housing programs for drug users. But after studying Japan’s war on drugs and realizing the inefficacy of his former programs, Rockefeller changed his stance entirely. Rockefeller’s laws promoted zero tolerance toward drug users, in a time when heroin use had become an epidemic in New York. Rockefeller mandated prison sentences of at least fifteen years for those dealing or possessing drugs, even first-time offenders. While modest reductions in cocaine use have been observed, these laws (which were replicated in other states) hugely expanded the prison system.
In addition to their unprecedented severity, these drug laws have been called racist for upending low-income Hispanic and black communities disproportionately. Black and Latino communities collectively composed an estimated 33% of New York City’s population; however, they accounted for 90% of those incarcerated under the laws. These statistics led to obvious criticisms of the laws as targeting minorities. Thankfully, the cost alone of enacting these drug laws, owing to the cost of incarcerating so many, has prompted them to be reconsidered.