Twenty years have passed since the cocaine-induced death of basketball wizard Len Bias touched off a war on drugs. His legacy, in the odd way that politics play out, is harsher penalties for crack cocaine, which is not quite the same drug that Bias used.
On June 19, 1986, two nights after the Boston Celtics selected him as the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft, Bias died of a cocaine overdose. He was 22. Eight days later, Don Rogers, a defensive player for the Cleveland Browns, also died of a cocaine overdose.
But, Bias' tragedy is the one most remembered. Bias appeared to be destined for greatness. Many were comparing the 6-foot-8-inch University of Maryland basketball star to another young prospect, Michael Jordan.
Grief was particularly pronounced in Boston, where Celtics fans hoped Bias would team up with future Hall of Famer Larry Bird for a few years, then take leadership of the franchise.
"All anybody in Boston is talking about is Len Bias," said then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.), according to "Smoke and Mirrors, The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure," by Dan Baum, a former Wall Street Journal reporter. "They want blood. If we move fast enough, we can get out in front of the White House."
In early July, Speaker O'Neill ordered his party's leadership to write some anti-drug legislation. Soon, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan would issue a personal appeal on national television for a "crusade" against drugs.
Black leaders shared the outrage. Bill Cosby, voicing an indignation that would make headlines two decades later, joined the Rev. Jesse Jackson on a Chicago stage to call for federal and citizen action. "For too long, we've been blaming other people," said Cosby, according to the Chicago Tribune. "In order to clean up the drug problem, we have to re-evaluate who we are. We've got to take charge."
Among other measures, Jackson called for increased use of military force along the nation's borders to fight the drug trade and broader search-and-seizure freedoms for undercover narcotics police.
He got his wish, although not in the way he wanted it. A decade later, at the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., Jackson would decry the sentencing discrepancy between powder and crack cocaine penalties that was putting black men in long-term prison sentences at a rate much higher than whites.
Curiously, the law and public outrage were targeted most strongly against crack cocaine. Bias, it turned out, had died from powder cocaine. Yet, many people still believe incorrectly that he died from crack, so great was the media frenzy about that the new cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine that had been making major headlines for the previous two years.
The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act contained new mandatory minimum sentences, a death penalty provision for drug "king pins" and no parole for even minor, first-time possession offenses. Congress also established much tougher sentences for crack cocaine offenses than for powder cocaine cases. Five grams of crack carried a minimum five-year federal prison sentence, which would require at least 500 grams of powder cocaine.
This was justified, many believed, because crack was associated with violent crimes and ruined lives in poor neighborhoods.
Yet, the United States Sentencing Commission, created by Congress in 1984 to develop fair federal sentencing guidelines, concluded that the violence resulted from neighborhood conditions, not the drug itself, which was not appreciably different from powder cocaine either in its chemical composition or the physical reactions of its users.
Although approximately two-thirds of crack users are white or Hispanic, the Sentencing Commission found, more than 80 percent of those convicted in federal courts of crack possession or trafficking in the mid-1990s were black. The Supreme Court ruled last year that the sentencing guidelines would be advisory, not mandatory. Some judges have begun to depart from the guidelines. In one recent example, Judge Gregory Presnell, of U.S. District Court in Orlando, Fla., ruled, "Unless one assumes the penalties for powder cocaine are vastly too low, then the far-higher penalties for crack are at odds with the seriousness of the offense."
Now, there's a thought: If you don't think crack sentencing is too severe for minor or first-time offenders, how about increasing the penalties for powder cocaine? Or would that sweep up too many members of the better-off classes to suit our lawmakers?
Just imagine, for a moment, the alarm that would be generated by parades of, say, handcuffed pro athletes, fashion models, fraternity boys and other charter members of the well-to-do silver coke spoon set, all doing their perp walks in front of television cameras? If that did not spur a renewed public demand for humane alternatives to long prison sentences, nothing would.