At the start of the new legislative session in January 1973, Nelson Rockefeller introduced a new and aggressive anti-drug law to the residents of New York State. Its aim was "to make the selling or conspiracy to sell hard drugs, the possession or conspiracy to possess large quantities of narcotics and the commission of violent crimes by persons who had ingested hard drugs punishable by the mandatory sentence of life imprisonment." This meant, in practice, that anyone convicted of selling or possessing any quantity of any "narcotic" drug (including marijuana), hallucinogens, amphetamines or depressants, would, if older than 19, be sentenced to prison for the remainder of his or her life. Furthermore, the defendant would not be permitted to plead guilty to a lesser charge, nor be eligible for probation or parole. The bill would also make it a new crime to commit any number of "conventional" offenses after having knowingly ingested one of the unlawful substances, Knowing ingestion was io be presumed if, within forty-eight hours after the crime, traces of a hard drug could be found in the defendant’s body. (This despite scientific evidence that many of these substances cannot be detected after as short a time as several hours.)
Governor Rockefeller’s proposal attempted to make the sanctions for possessing and selling even small quantities of "dangerous" drugs equal to or more severe than those available for seemingly more serious crimes—mur-der, assault, burglary, etc. Although the bill was changed somewhat in its passage through the legislature, it remained a hard-nosed attempt to control drug use and abuse in New York State.
Considering the immense amount of research conducted in the United States on drug use, and the almost overwhelming weight of opinion to support the liberalization of drug laws, it is difficult to understand how such a repressive bill could have found backers. However, a brief look at early drug legislation may point to an answer.
The first significant federal legislation dealing with the sale and use of narcotics was the Harrison Act of 1914. This had been preceded by the Hague Opium Conference of 1912, at which an international agreement was made to control the traffic in opium and other addicting drugs. The Harrison Act was passed to control the domestic sale and use of opium and coca products through the levying of taxes on them. Despite the fact that it was primarily a revenue measure, it contained exceptionally harsh and punitive penalties. Also included in its provisions were stipulations for registration and maintenance of records by individuals who handled the drugs. Further, it prohibited drug possession by those not registered, except for "legitimate medical purposes." Ostensibly, its purpose was to make drug distribution in this country visible and. thus controllable. There is little indication that its intent was to deprive addicts of legal access to drugs or to interfere with the medical treatment of addicts. Later Supreme Court rulings as to what were "legitimate medical purposes" were responsible for the repressive measures accorded addicts. The cases of Jin Fuey Moy (1920), Webb (1919) and Behrman (1925) sought to impose increasingly strict limits on the sources from which addicts could obtain maintenance doses of narcotics. For example, the Court held in Webb that a legal prescription for maintenance levels of narcotic drugs was not within the parameters of a law which did however allow doctors to prescribe these drugs "in the course of professional treatment." The other cases, essentially refinements of this theme, set further limits on the ability of the medical profession to alleviate the distress of drug users.
The extremely harsh implications of these cases were mitigated, nominally, by the Lindner case (1925), in which the Court reiterated that the Harrison Act was intended only as a revenue measure. The Act said nothing about addicts and did not undertake to prescribe methods for their treatment. Although intended as a rule of enlightenment, the effects of this case remained largely symbolic and yielded little to either addicts or their treatment by physicians. When the Harrison Act was passed there were thought to be 400,000 addicts in the United States, many of whom had been inadvertently "turned on" through the use of soothing syrups and painkillers, before these substances were known to be addictive. Prior to the passage of the Act, such persons could buy, legitimately and, inexpensively, the drugs necessary to sustain their habits. "Criminal" addicts were unheard of. The black market in drugs and all the related problems resulted from a law aimed at controlling and decreasing the availability of drugs. Society’s ameliorating attempts only aggravated a situation which previously had not existed as a problem. The implication is not that the laws generated addiction; rather, the fault lies in the manner in which they restricted access to the drugs.