November 22, 2000

County Resolution Supports New York Drug Law Reforms

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Bundled and shivering, the Ithaca Coalition for Global Justice held a candlelight vigil outside of the Tompkins County Courthouse last night to advocate reforming New York state’s 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws.

The vigil was held during the Tompkins County Board of Representatives bi-monthly meeting, where a resolution acknowledging the county’s support of Martin Luster’s (D-125th) proposal to reform the drug laws was passed by a unanimous vote (14-0; Rep. Barbara Blanchard was absent).

Luster’s proposal, presented to the State Assembly, would increase judicial discretion in cases involving drug offenses. Currently, the laws’ penalties apply without regard to the circumstances of the offense or the individual’s character or background.

The laws set minimum sentencing for most drug offenses with the reasoning that harsh sentences would deter abusers. The harshest sentence is the 15 years to life punishment for the possession of four ounces or the sale of two ounces of narcotics.

“The punishment doesn’t fit the crime [under the Rockefeller Laws],” said Prof. Wayles Browne, linguistics, who spoke at the meeting. He cited the case of 17-year-old Angela Thompson, who was sentenced for 15 years to life as a first-time offender. Ten years later Browne, who reviewed the case, finally won clemency for the girl after two tries in the appeals court. She was found to be acting under the orders of her uncle, who had an extensive criminal record.

According to the N.Y. Department of Correctional Services, over 90 percent of the 22,300 inmates serving time in the state’s prisons today are there because of these laws passed 27 years ago. Sixty percent have been charged with the three lowest felonies — class C, D or E — which involve only minute drug amounts. For example, possession of only one-half gram of cocaine is the requirement for conviction of a Class D felony, and at a cost of $2 billion to construct these prisons with a $715 million a year running cost, expenditure has become a major issue.

“It’s a criminal problem because we have made it a problem,” said the N.Y. Civil Liberties Union in a statement supporting the view that drug addiction should be treated like alcoholism is treated, as a medical problem and not a crime. Studies have shown that treatment programs are more successful and less costly than incarceration, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Besides the ineffectiveness of this criminal treatment of drugs, criminal profiling has led to racial biasing, according to the N.Y. State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

“The Victims are the poor,” said Koralie Hill grad, as she addressed the Tompkins County Board of Representatives. “Latinos and African-Americans make up over 94 percent of drug offenders … while studies show 50 percent of all drug users are white.”

Hill, a member of the Ithaca Sharks, brought a more global spin to the issue, speaking of the effects of the “failed war on drugs” on South America, specifically referring to Colombia.

“The war on drugs funds weapons for paramilitary troops … causing six children to die each day [in Colombia],” she added. The environmental impact is also something that needs consideration.

The herbicides used to destroy these illegal coca and opium poppies include tebuthiuron, glyphosate and 2,4-D (an ingredient in Agent Orange). They not only contaminate the ground water but indiscriminately kill all plants. These sprays have destroyed fields and pastures that the indigenous people would normally use for food and income, according to the Ithaca Sharks.

This victory is only a small step in the continuing pursuit of the Sharks to work in solidarity with people around the world to end all forms of economic, social, cultural and ecological oppression. “If we channel our energies … the rest will fall into place.”

Archived article by Mike Brody