An editorial in the New York Daily News, “Saying Yes to Drugs,” recently warned us that a new bill designed

to reform New York’s infamous Rockefeller drug laws and passed in the Assembly, “would push New York dangerously close to decriminalizing even hard-core drugs.” It dubs the legislation, “The Drug Dealer Protection Act” and then enumerates the bill’s horrors, which add up to a “game of Russian roulette.” We should all be scared to death, unless we actually knew that criminalization of drugs, even the really hard core ones, produces the actual crime of which we should be afraid. Decriminalization of drug use, abuse, and petty possession is the very heart of drug law reform; it is no secret. Reformation of the Rockefeller laws entails reduction of draconian prison sentences, restoration of judicial discretion in sentencing offenders, and the realization that drug use and addiction is a medical rather than criminal problem. The Daily News, however, would have you believe that the bill is somehow disingenuous about its decriminalization intentions because “only a close reading of the measure reveals that little-understood provisions” would result in decriminalization. This is a scare tactic. Among the “little-understood provisions” is the elimination of the statutory mandate that imputes knowing possession to anyone present in a dwelling or vehicle containing narcotics, regardless of who actually owns the drugs. According to the law, presence alone is “presumptive evidence” of possession. A presumption permits juries to deduce that a defendant knowingly possessed the substance due to his mere presence in the automobile or house, absent proof of actual possession. This presumption is an evidentiary advantage for the prosecution, who must prove every element of the crime, because it is a shortcut in the proof, and an evidentiary disadvantage to the defendant, who must rebut the presumption in order to counteract its persuasiveness. This places the defendant in the unconstitutional position of proving his own innocence, which is presumed.

The Assembly bill replaces the presumption standard with “permissible inference.” Under the permissible inference standard, juries are permitted but not required to infer possession from presence. Essentially, this is an attempt to eliminate the guilt by proximity that the old standard imputed. The Daily News classifies this as one of the bill’s “many dangerous provisions.” The only danger is that defendants will no longer take the rap, as did Lance A. Marrow, for drugs that do not belong to them. In the case of Mr. Marrow, who received 15 years to life for possession of drugs that belonged to his roommate, the sentencing judge said, ‘I am required by law to impose a sentence that in my view you don’t deserve.” The Daily News however, bemoans that district attorneys would now have to persuade juries the old fashioned way – with actual evidence of the defendant’s guilt. It fails to acknowledge the existing law’s promulgation of wildly inequitable cases such as Lance Marrow’s. The Daily News’ histrionic characterization of the Assembly bill as one that “would eviscerate the power of law enforcement to combat thugs who terrorize New York’s poorest neighborhoods” is subterfuge designed to obscure the fact that a penal approach to drug policy is an abominable failure, in terms of combating drug use. It is a blazing success however, at generating a profitable economic sector for the state. Prisons produce jobs, especially in communities where nothing much else grows. And within those prisons are downstate denizens who count as constituents for the purpose of drawing a senatorial district, most of which are occupied by Republicans.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful