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In the 1960s and early 1970s, officials were floundering in their attempts to combat a major uptick in heroin use, and after more rehabilitation-oriented measures failed, then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller enacted the so-called "Rockefeller Drug Laws" in 1973. The minimum sentence for possession of four ounces of narcotics was set at 15 years, comparable to the standard one for second-degree murder. Some of the harshest drug laws the nation had ever seen, the Rockefeller policies set the tone for the war on drugs nation-wide, and to many became emblematic of its numerous failings.
The laws were amended in 1979 to lower the penalty for marijuana possession, but were still criticized for their sweeping, overly harsh treatment of low-level and non-violent offenses, leading to grossly disproportionate incarceration of black and latino citizens, as well as inefficient and overcrowded prisons.
In 2004 George Pataki eased the sentences slightly with the Drug Law Reform Act, and in 2009 David Paterson signed an official reform of the Rockefeller policies, giving judges the option of sending offenders to treatment rather than a harsh and automatic prison sentence. "We are reforming these laws to treat those who suffer from addiction and to punish those who profit from it," Paterson said at the time.