In the late 1960s and early 1970s, America’s inner cities were wracked by an epidemic of heroin addiction and the crime that went with it. New York State responded with harsh drug laws, including mandatory minimum sentences up to life in prison for selling just one ounce of heroin. Soon, other states and the federal government adopted similar laws, and the nation’s prisons filled up with non-violent drug offenders, mostly young black men.
From time to time over the past 40 years, efforts were made to treat heroin addiction as a public health instead of a crime problem. But they were not successful.