WILLIAMSTOWN — The New York state troopers who surrounded my car in the parking lot of a nightclub in Petersburgh, N.Y., on New Year’s Eve in 1973 weren’t in a festive mood.

“How far is it to Williamstown?” one of them asked as he held my driver’s license in the beam of his flashlight.

“To the center of town?” I inquired. “Or to the town line …?”

“Are you trying to be a wise guy?” he said, stepping closer to me.

Honest. I was not trying to be a wise guy. After all, the town/state line was a two-minute walk; the trip to Spring Street was another matter, maybe five or six miles. I thought he had me figured for a drunk driver and was trying to find out if I knew where I was.

After a close inspection of my (Massachusetts) license, registration and a quick once-over of the car’s interior, the troopers backed off. One of them racked a shotgun back into his cruiser and they melted into the shadows of the lot to await developments. I headed for the bar.

I stayed until just after midnight. I greeted 1974 with a watery Scotch and soda and a flat Pepsi, then headed for home. The troopers didn’t wave back as I left.

A day or so later, I learned that I very well may have been the first person to be detained for questioning under the “Rockefeller Drug Laws,” which had been enacted in May 1973 to take effect on Jan. 1, 1974. At about 2 that morning, the troopers’ persistence paid off with the arrest — and subsequent conviction — of the occupants of a Massachusetts-registered car on charges of heroin possession and possession of various drug paraphernalia.

The laws sprung from the fear of the then-governor of New York, Nelson A. Rockefeller, that his chances of securing the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 would be diminished unless he took a stronger stand on illegal drugs.

With help from state legislators, who likely had their own reasons for boosting Rocky’s presidential chances (getting him out of Albany) the governor pushed through what were to stand for years as some of the most severe drug laws in the country.

Until their modification in 2004 and 2009, the statutes mandated state prison terms of between 15 years to life and 25 years to life for those convicted of possessing more than four ounces or selling more than two ounces of illegal drugs ranging from heroin to marijuana.

In 1973, the state prison population in New York was about 10,000. By 2002, it had increased to about 70,000 inmates, of whom about 19,000 were serving sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. Over the years, thousands of inmates were resentenced, many to time served or release on probation and/or to drug treatment programs.

Although they have been largely gutted (New York decriminalized possession and use of small amounts of marijuana in September 2021), it’s now generally agreed that the Rockefeller drug laws were a fiasco. They were simple-minded solutions for complex problems and they were designed solely for political purposes. They were “feel-good” laws at their worst, textbook examples of pandering. They’ve done untold damage, the worst of which is the perpetuation of disrespect for the law.

The drug statutes certainly didn’t pay off for Rockefeller, whose 1976 presidential ambitions quickly fizzled.

Rocky’s folly comes to mind as I follow the story of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s petulant response to the influx of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

From here, it looks like we owe thanks to Florida taxpayers, who will be coming up with $12 million to provide Massachusetts with dozens of willing workers and incipient good citizens. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, Martha’s Vineyard’s town leaders and scores of volunteers are welcoming their chance to demonstrate the meanings of words like due process, kindness, generosity, understanding and humanity.

We need to see those words at work, especially these days, so think of your ancestors from D’Abruzzi and keep those planes coming, governor. You’re making us better every time.

D.R. (Dusty) Bahlman may be reached at notesandfootnotes39@gmail.com or 413-441-4278.