Pubdate: Sun, 19 Jun 2011
Source: Salon (US Web)
Copyright: 2011 Salon
Author: Jonathan Easley,  Editorial Fellow at Salon.


On June 19, 1986, 25 years ago Sunday, University of Maryland
basketball star Len Bias died of cocaine intoxication. Many believed
the 6-foot 7, 220-pound small forward possessed a level of talent
equal to that of Michael Jordan, and only two days earlier he'd been
selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft by the reigning
champion Boston Celtics.

In Ronald Reagan's America, Bias instantly became the poster child for
what could happen to anyone who didn't just say no. His sudden,
shocking death dominated the headlines and unnerved millions of
Americans, who were told that the cardiac arrhythmia he suffered was
the result of casual, one-time experimentation with drugs. "Leonard's
only vice," his college coach, Charles "Lefty" Driesell, had declared
just days earlier, "is ice cream."

Responding to this outpouring of grief and fear, Congress promptly
passed (and Reagan signed) the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. In their
haste, they may not have fully grasped what they were doing.

The law has resulted in 25 years of disproportionately harsh prison
sentences for defendants who are disproportionately black. It called
for felony charges and mandatory minimum prison sentences for anyone
caught with even a small amount of cocaine; inexplicably, it triggered
the mandatory sentences for crack cocaine possession at 1/100 the
amount of powder cocaine. Rather than rooting out the traffickers, it
filled the country's jails with blacks and Hispanics, who in some
cases serve more time for possession than convicted murderers. It was
only after '86 that the number of blacks surpassed the number of
whites in prison for the first time, and many of the offenders who
were picked up that year are still locked up.

Richard Nixon formally declared America's war on drugs 40 years ago,
but the 1986 law was the first significant piece of legislation
related to it. To mark the 25th anniversary of the tragedy that led to
the drug war as we now know it, we spoke with Eric Sterling, who
served as counsel to the House committee that drafted the '86 law. Now
president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, he discussed the
legislative frenzy that followed Bias' death and its consequences, and
what might have been if Bias had lived.

Remind us of Len Bias the rising basketball star, before he became a
symbol of the drug war.

Len Bias grew up in the D.C. area where he was a high school
basketball star. By 1986 he was an All-American at the University of
Maryland, which was one of the top basketball programs in the country.
He was a player on the same scale as a Michael Jordan -- they were
essentially contemporaries.

And then what happened?

After the NBA draft, he caught a plane back to Washington -- he was
still living on campus at the time. He was celebrating the signing
with some of his friends, they were drinking, and then one friend came
over and they started snorting cocaine. He had a seizure in the early
morning and someone called 911, but before the morning was over he was
dead. That morning the newspapers still had stories about his signing
and pictures of him at the draft, but if you turned on the radio or TV
there were stories that he was dead. It was a tremendous scandal.

So it was a tragic, sensational story, but Congress doesn't jump on
every headline like they it here. Why did they seize on this one?

Any member of Congress who watched sports in the '80s had seen Len
Bias dozens of times driving to basket, making these incredible shots,
blocking and rebounding -- he was a hardworking, effective and
beautiful athlete. The Boston Celtics drafted him and they had just
won the NBA championship the year before. Len flew up to Madison
Square Garden for the draft and appeared at a press conference where
there were something like 25 TV cameras around him for the signing. He
had also just signed a multimillion-dollar shoe contract with Reebok.
He was the biggest college basketball star of his time, so aside from
the sports angle, this was just a big news story.

And it coupled well with another big news story of '80s, which was the
cocaine problem.

That's right. There was this growing problem of crack cocaine and
there was a lot of the violence that surrounded the trade that really
increased the stigma of it. In 1984, Reagan was able to convince
voters that he was stronger than Walter Mondale on the issues of drugs
and crime, so the Democrats were looking for a way to regain control
of that story. [House Speaker] Tip O'Neill was about to retire, and as
a swan song he thought he could help the Democrats regain control by
getting tough on these issues.

And it just sort of escalated from there?

It became the sole focus of legislative activity for the remainder of
the session on both sides of the aisle. Literally every committee,
from the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee to the
Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries were somehow getting
involved. Suddenly, the Len Bias case was the driving force behind
every piece of legislation. Members of Congress were setting up
hearings about the drug problem and every subcommittee chairman was
looking to get a piece of the action. They were talking about Len Bias
at every press conference and it was all tied together -- the Len Bias
tragedy and the potency of drugs and this evil that was killing
America's youth. He became shorthand, a high-profile symbol for all of
these issues. People were shouting about how crack cocaine was the
most addictive or dangerous substance to ever exist, and one lawmaker
was calling for the death penalty for some drug-related offenses. It
was hyperbole piled on top of exaggeration.

And the story that was pushed in the media made it even

Bias was a clean-cut guy. To be that kind of an athlete and to operate
at that level he had to be. Had he used cocaine before? Possibly. But
there wasn't any evidence that he was an addict. So there was this
idea that if it can happen to this healthy kid, it can happen to
anyone. The story became that if you try it even once, it can kill
you. That was the story of Len Bias and cocaine.

How did the legislation come together?

Usually when you want to introduce a new bill, you sit down and
carefully write the policy. Are we clear on what the implications are?
You write a draft and maybe circulate it around for ideas. You ask
federal judges, prisons, prosecutors, U.S. attorneys, the DEA, law
professors, sentencing commissions, criminal defense lawyers and the
ACLU how it will affect things. You have hearings. All of this was
skipped. Both sides were trying to be quicker and tougher than the

So the DEA came up with numbers to define high-level trafficking, but
a congressman from Kentucky said he would never be able to use the law
because they didn't have trafficking that high in his area. So we
needed new numbers. Nobody stopped to say, "But Louisville isn't Miami
or Hollywood or New York. You should be lucky you don't see this in
Louisville." Suddenly, these numbers just wouldn't work -- we needed
"better" numbers. So I called a very respected narc named Johnny St.
Valentine Brown, whose nickname was Jehru, to detail to the committee
what the numbers should be on minimum trafficking violations.

So a narc was responsible for the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder

Yes. And later he turned out to be a perjurer and went to federal
prison. He had lied for years about graduating from Howard
University's School of Pharmacy and being a pharmacist. In preparation
for his sentencing he provided some letters attesting to his good
reputation from various figures in D.C., including judges. It turned
out he had forged the letters he was submitting to the court to get a
more lenient sentence!

Anyway, there was no conversation to determine if crack was even more
dangerous than cocaine, or what quantity a mid-level crack dealer
might carry in comparison to a mid-level cocaine dealer. It was a
seat-of-the-pants judgment from this one narc about what the drug
trade in one part of the country might have looked like at that moment
in time.

That's insane.

And those were last-minute items thrown into the first bill that was
passed by the House. At the time, the Senate was controlled by Strom
Thurmond and the Republicans. They looked at it and said: "OK, well if
the Democrats have a sentence of five years to 20 years, let's up it
to 10 years to 40 years. And if the Dems say 20 grams, we'll make it
5!" Nobody looked at the proper ratios based on how harmful it was. It
was completely detached from science. Nobody could say that crack was
100 times more dangerous than powder.

What were the social effects of these laws?

In 1986 the federal prison population was 36,000. Today it's 216,000.
And in the 25 years since, drug charges have made up more than half of
the total cases. The prison population is disproportionately black and
Hispanic. The federal government does about 25,000 cases a year and
only one out of four of those defendants is white. Also, it's widely
believed that crack cases are mostly minorities, while the powder
cocaine cases are mostly white, but that's a myth. It's true that only
one in 10 crack cases are white, but the overwhelming majority of
powder cocaine defendants are still black or Hispanic.

 From that angle it certainly looks like intentionally racist

There were all of these mythologies about how Congress did this
intentionally because powder was only used by whites. The way it was
put together wasn't racist, it just wasn't thought out.

But the other thing that was skewed was that the Department of Justice
was supposed to be focusing on high-level traffickers. You look at
global trafficking -- this stuff is coming in on boats by the ton, but
more than a third of federal cases involve less than an ounce of cocaine.

So the federal government is looking at insignificant local cases and
handing out long sentences to defendants that are predominantly black
or Hispanic. No matter what the intentions were in 1986, if these
measures had been carried out by a local D.A. instead of the federal
government, that D.A. would be indicted for violating civil rights

Have the laws changed at all in the last 25 years?

Attorney general after attorney general has utterly failed to say the
first word on this. The drug czars continue to ignore the fact that
people of color are being given inconceivable sentences. It's
outrageous, but it can be a tricky thing. I remember Charlie Rangel
proposed the Crack Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act, but those words
don't mean anything! How are you going to convince people to vote for
something when it sounds like the Let Crack Dealers Out of Prison
Early Act? You have to call it something like the Cocaine Kingpin
Punishment Act.

But anyway, in 2010 they passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which raised
the amounts that triggered minimum sentencing, and lowered the crack
cocaine ratio from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1.

Is that ratio still just as arbitrary?


What other changes would you still like to see?

The Department of Justice is the most powerful law enforcement agency
in world. They can use the CIA and the military, they can take on
money laundering investigations and look at wire transfers at every
bank in the world. If they were focused on the drug trade instead of
helping sheriffs break down doors, we would see a big change.

Another change could be done administratively. The attorney general
could tell attorneys not to make it a federal case if it's under 200
kilos, unless it involves a homicide or intimidation of a witness or
something like that. There are 1.7 million state and local drug
arrests every year and 300,000 state felony convictions. We're already
prosecuting crack dealers all over the country. The feds are just
piggybacking on the local guys.

Len Bias would be 48 this year. How would the world be different if he
hadn't died of a cocaine overdose in 1986?

The world would be completely different. Hundreds of thousands of
people would never have gone to jail if Len Bias had not died.
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