"The Attila the Hun Law": New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Making of a Punitive State

By Kohler-Hausmann, Julilly | Journal of Social History, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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"The Attila the Hun Law": New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Making of a Punitive State


Kohler-Hausmann, Julilly, Journal of Social History


During his annual address to the legislature in 1973, Governor Nelson Rockefeller shocked the political establishment by declaring that New York State's drug treatment programs--programs he had championed for over a decade--were abject failures. He explained that it was time to come clean with the legislature and the people of New York:

  It is a time for brutal honesty regarding narcotics addiction ... In
  this state, we have allotted over $1 billion to every form of
  education against drugs and treatment of the addict through
  commitment, therapy, and rehabilitation. But let's he frank-let's
  tell it like it is: We have achieved very little permanent
  rehabilitation-and have found no cure. (1)

What the situation demanded, the governor explained, was a stern new policy of deterrence that repudiated the state's earlier emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegrating drug users into society. Rockefeller insisted this drastic move was imperative because "[t]he hard drug pusher destroys lives just as surely as and far more cruelly than a cold-blooded killer. Me threatens our society as a whole. ..." (2) To stave off this disaster, he called on New York state to punish drug dealing more harshly than rape, kidnapping, and even murder:

  I, therefore, will ask for legislation making the penalty for all
  illegal trafficking in hard drugs a life sentence in prison. To close
  all avenues for escaping the full force of this sentence, the law
  would forbid acceptance of a plea to a lesser charge, forbid
  probation, forbid parole and forbid suspension of sentence. (3)

A few months later, the New York legislature answered Rockefeller's call and passed a mildly diluted version of his proposal, enacting the harshest narcotics laws in the nation.

This article investigates what led Nelson Rockefeller to reverse his course and reject the era's reigning assumptions regarding drug abuse. It explores the ideological and political work accomplished by this high profile legislation--for policy makers, for members of the general public who clamored for "get tough" strategies, and for the drug users targeted by the laws. To capture the implications of Rockefeller's proposal for political culture, this study focuses mainly on the social and cultural history of this legislation, and only tangentially follows the intricacies of the drug policy debates or the institutional history of drug treatment in New York.

After outlining this article's principal arguments and its relationship to wider scholarly literatures, I review what, made rising crime and drug use a potent political issue in the early 1970s and analyze how citizens framed these problems in their correspondence with Rockefeller. The next section explores the governor's dramatic embrace of his punitive drug proposal, the public's response, and the implications of the laws' eventual passage. The final segment investigates how drug offenders interpreted the new laws and represented themselves in the face of a program committed to ostracizing and silencing them. I conclude with a discussion of how this examination of the Rockefeller Drug Laws contributes to our broader understanding of punitive policy's political utility and the specific ways such legislation empowered conservative politicians and rationalized neo-liberal political projects.

The Rockefeller Drug Laws are critical to study because they served as inspiration for the "War on Drug" policies enacted nationwide that have fueled the unprecedented recent explosion in incarceration. As an early experiment in articulating new visions for government, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were not only a formative historical event in their own right, but they also shed light onto the wider phenomena of "get tough" criminal policies and rhetoric that escalated in the 1970s. Even more generally, they were instrumental in the profound renegotiation of the state's role, responsibilities, and character occurring in society at this time.

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