On the surface, drug laws don't seem like they could ever be a bad thing, and yet in New York State they have been a terrible thing for many people who committed minor offenses but had to serve prison sentences under the draconian 1970s legislation known as the Rockefeller drug laws. These laws, which were put in place by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller during a time of rising heroin use, require judges to mete out harsh mandatory prison sentences even for the most minor drug crimes. The result has been the devastation of countless lives that would otherwise have been saved by treatment. I know that because I saw it happen first hand.
Back in the 1980s, a dear friend of mine, a talented young man who was more like a younger brother than a friend, got involved with the wrong people. Before long, he was addicted to cocaine and began a downward spiral into a terrible world that he did not know how to escape. I watched him suffer. I saw him try to break free. He was eventually tricked into believing that if he delivered this one packet of drugs from one dealer to another, he would save a friend in trouble. He agreed, and he was arrested, set up by someone looking to save his own hide.
This otherwise beautiful, sweet, spiritual kid had a thriving hair salon and was well on his way to recovery when the Rockefeller drug laws ensnared him. He lost everything and had to serve hard prison time. I can remember many Friday nights during those long months when my friend would call collect from prison, desperate to hear a friendly voice amid the harsh life he faced every day. A gentle soul by nature, my friend told me how he had to act tough, scary, in order to protect himself behind bars.
My friend was one of the lucky ones but no thanks to the justice system. He managed to come out of prison as sweet and kind as ever. He rebuilt his business into something even better than it was before, and he stayed clean until the day he died of cancer a week before he would have turned 36.
I learned so much from my friend. I asked him to take me to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting so I could understand what he was dealing with. He did. I asked him to explain to me what it was like to live with the monkey of drug addiction on his back day after day. He did. He let me know a world that was foreign to me, and it helped me see the face of drug addiction in a real and powerful way. Even all these years later, I can remember being amazed by his resiliency, his determination, and his utter lack of anger toward a system that should have offered him treatment but instead locked him up with common criminals.
The Rockefeller drug laws, which the Church in New York has long opposed, have done similar things to thousands of young people, parents, families. They have ruined lives because they do not allow a judge to take into account a person's history, or lack of criminal history. Non-violent, first-time, minor drug offenders should not be incarcerated when they can be rehabilitated through the most basic treatment programs.
It is a feather in New York Gov. David Paterson's cap that he has managed to reach a deal that will dismantle these drug laws and replace prison sentences with drug treatment for minor offenders. The system must focus on dealers and drug lords and not on the people at their mercy.