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New York Lightens Up on Some of the Harshest Drug Laws in the Country

Let's hope the changes mark the beginning of the end of New York's Rockefeller drug laws.

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"It's unfair. You're caught with a little amount of drugs, and you serve a long, long term in prison," says Ashley O'Donoghue, a tall, thin man with "God's Son" tattooed on his neck. "It should be retroactive so the people who are still there can get a sentence that's more suitable for what they did."

O'Donoghue, 26, was arrested in 2003 when two white college students he'd been dealing cocaine to were nabbed and set him up for a 2 1/2-ounce sale, well above his usual range. Facing 15 to life, he pleaded guilty to a B felony and served five years of a 7-to-21-year sentence.

Comedian Randy Credico, a longtime drug-law activist who attended the March 25 rally dressed as Diogenes, "looking for an honest politician," says any changes in the law would be inadequate unless retroactive resentencing is "automatic." Less than half the 1,000 prisoners eligible to apply for shorter sentences under the 2004 law actually got them.

Nicholas Eyle of Reconsider, a Syracuse anti-prohibition group, is also not enthusiastic. "I don't want to sound like I don't support the change, but I'm not that excited," he says. "I'm not a fan of mandatory treatment."

Although rehab is preferable to prison, he says, most people arrested on drug charges are not addicts, and if they tell counselors that, they'll be told they're "in denial."

What the state really needs, he believes, is a "paradigm shift. If you want to save money and reduce crime, end prohibition. If you question the fundamentals, you have to conclude that prohibition doesn't work."

Many New Yorkers find it surprising that the state government could accomplish anything on such a controversial issue. The New York legislature is often called the most dysfunctional in the nation.

Virtually all major legislation is crafted by secret negotiations among the "three men in a room": the governor, the state Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker.

Democrats have long held a majority approaching 2-1 in the Assembly, the legislature's lower house. However, state Senate districts have been gerrymandered to aid the Republicans, who controlled it from 1965 to 2008.

Over the last 15 years of that era, the Senate's GOP leader, Joseph Bruno, was able to block all but token Rockefeller-law reform. He also gutted the state's rent-control laws and refused to let the Senate consider legalizing same-sex marriage.

Bruno resigned last summer, several months before he was indicted on federal corruption charges, and in November, the Democrats won a 32-30 majority in the Senate. That immediately revved up hopes among the state's progressive activists.

However, the ballots had scarcely been counted when three Senate Democrats threatened to ally with the Republicans unless they were given power and concessions.

Nicknamed the Gang of Three, they are Pedro Espada Jr. of the Bronx, a rent-control foe with a long history of campaign-finance violations; Carl Kruger, a Brooklyn death-penalty advocate; and the fiercely anti-gay Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx.

The Democrats' majority was further threatened when Hiram Monserrate, a Queens liberal, was indicted for slashing his girlfriend. This has jeopardized Senate passage of several bills to strengthen rent control and is widely believed to have scotched any hope of it considering same-sex marriage.

Many activists also believe that upstate Republicans oppose reducing drug sentences because prisons are one of the few sources of steady jobs in the region, whose economy has been slumping since the 1970s. In 1973, when the Rockefeller laws passed, New York had 18 prisons. From 1973 to 1999, it built 51 new ones.