Drug Policy and the Battle for Order in Post-Civil Rights New York

AHA Session 10
Friday, January 2, 2015: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Murray Hill Suite A (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Eric Schneider, University of Pennsylvania
Addressing New York City’s Postwar Heroin Boom
Christopher Hayes, Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Old Allies, New Problems: Civil Rights Activists and New York’s Drug War
Marsha E. Barrett, Mississippi State University
Condemning Crack, Condemning Crime, Condemning Ourselves: Crack Era Reform from the Grassroots to Washington
Michael Jordan Durfee, Buffalo State College (State University of New York)
Vesla Weaver, Yale University

Session Abstract

New York State is at the center of inquiries into the evolution of American drug policies in the latter half of the twentieth century that have given the United States the unfortunate honor of leading the world in rates of incarceration and recidivism. The passage of the 1973 Rockefeller Drug Laws put New York at the forefront of the nation’s reliance on “law and order” reforms and mandatory sentencing to reverse a rising a rate of drug use that had proven difficult to control with legislation and policing. Our panel will examine the efforts of activists from within the African American community to participate in and shape municipal, state, and federal initiatives to control a problem that had an intimate and debilitating effect on urban communities. It will also highlight the ways in which more nuanced calls for reform are often appropriated and flattened to suit the political exigencies of the period and the particular needs of policymakers.

Christopher Hayes’s paper outlines the unsuccessful attempts by community groups and municipal government to curb the rise in heroin use in Harlem in the 1960s. His work lays the groundwork for understanding the range of responses to heroin use and highlights the stubbornness of a problem rooted in urban decline.  Marsha Barrett’s work considers the ramifications of what was known as a local/urban drug problem being labeled a statewide crime epidemic. Her paper examines the efforts of civil rights activists to shape new drug policies to benefit black communities and the limitations of alliances with liberal politicians that were forged during the civil rights movement. Michael Durfee’s paper extends the discussion about New York drug policy into the 1980s to examine how grassroots activists concerned with crack, the new drug epidemic of the moment, attempted to restructure and refine drug policies to meet their communities’ needs. His work challenges the prevailing arguments about the rise of the carceral state by placing black community leaders at the center of the narrative and provides nuance to our understanding of modern conservatism’s role in mass incarceration. Together, these papers examine the policy-making process at different stages and highlight narratives and perspectives that are often oversimplified or written out of accounts of this local story with national influence. The panel emphasizes the need for a nuanced understanding of drug policy and mass incarceration literature, which is inherently interdisciplinary, and will appeal to a broad audience interested in this history that engages with sociology, criminology, political science, and public policy.

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