Drug Policy

How a Basketball Player's Tragic Death Gave Us One Of The Worst Drug Laws Ever

When Len Bias overdosed, Democrats saw an opportunity to outdo Republicans on drug war legislation. Three decades later, the cost is staggering.

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The Len Bias tragedy continues
Terpfan101/Wikimedia Commons

Though there was no fanfare from Congress, or from the conventional wisdom-thinking class who bemoan the fact that Congress doesn't pass as many laws as it used to in the good ole' days, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 turned 30 years old yesterday.

The law was created as a knee-jerk response to the tragic cocaine overdose death of star University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias, who had just signed a contract with the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics. Author Dan Baum wrote in his drug war history book Smoke and Mirrors of how the "do something, anything!" mentality led then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) to demand swift and decisive action to ratchet up drug laws and to do it before the Republicans could beat his party to it.

(Via former Reasoner Radley Balko's Washington Post column):

Immediately upon returning from the July 4 recess, Tip O'Neill called an emergency meeting of the crime-related committee chairmen. Write me some goddamn legislation, he thundered. All anybody up in Boston was talking about was Len Bias. The papers were screaming for blood. We need to get out front on this now. This week. Today. The Republicans beat us to it in 1984 and I don't want that to happen again. I want dramatic new initiatives for dealing with crack and other drugs. If we can do this fast enough, he said to the Democratic leadership arrayed around him, we can take the issue away from the White House.

In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player. In death, he would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs. What came before had been only skirmishing; the real Drug War had yet to begin. Within weeks the country would be marching, bayonets fixed…

Crack was a congressional member's dream: an issue on which there was no real disagreement, only a question of who could prove himself more committed to the cause. Eric Sterling couldn't tell whether Congress was leading television or vice versa. In the month following Bias's death, the networks aired seventy-four evening news segments about crack and cocaine, often erroneously interchanging the two substances and blithely asserting it was crack that killed Bias…

At the time of the law's passing, it was heralded as a bipartisan example of Congress taking its lawmaking responsibility seriously and in the public interest. But three decades later, its effect on mass incarceration, as well as the racial disparity of those prosecuted for drug-related crimes, and the militarization of police who are now expected to fight a "war on drugs" rather than "serve and protect" communities, are indisputably terrible.

Mandatory minimum sentences were exponentially increased, crack cocaine possession was prosecuted 100 times more harshly than powdered cocaine possession, and the focus on dealing with drug addicts became one of punishment, rather than rehabilitation.

Put simply, it is a terrible law, still on the books, with little interest in Congress to repeal it entirely.

While some of the law's measures, such as the 100:1 crack to powder disparity, have been rolled back thanks to subsequent legislation, the fact remains that because politicians saw a high-profile tragedy as an opportunity to pass legislation (even worse, an opportunity to outdo the opposition party in how punitive such legislation would be) an unspeakable human and societal cost continues to be paid.

As Reason's Jacob Sullum noted, President Obama commuted the sentennces of 98 nonviolent drug offenders yesterday, including 42 who had been condemened to life in prison. Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) released a statement lauding the president's action, but FAMM's Vice President Kevin Ring also referred to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, saying "You can't fix 30 years of bad policy overnight."

Ring added, "Think about it: Every day, people are sentenced in federal court based not on what their judge thinks is appropriate, but on what Tip O'Neill, Strom Thurmond, and a bunch of other deceased lawmakers believed 30 years ago. It's just ridiculous."

Watch FAMM's explainer video of The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 below:

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    1. NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

  1. The 30 for 30: Without Bias was really good.

  2. But three decades later, its effect on mass incarceration, … the racial disparity of those prosecuted … and the militarization of police … are indisputably terrible.

    And that’s just the Tip of the O’Neill.

  3. Ring added, “Think about it: Every day, people are sentenced in federal court based not on what their judge thinks is appropriate, but on what Tip O’Neill, Strom Thurmond, and a bunch of other deceased lawmakers believed 30 years ago. It’s just ridiculous.”

    I like this bit but doesn’t echo the arguments of anti-constitutionalists?

    1. Here ya go:

      Ring added, “Think about it: Every day, people are sentenced in federal court based not on what their judge thinks the founding fathers thought is appropriate, but on what Tip O’Neill, Strom Thurmond, and a bunch of other deceased raving asshole lawmakers believed 30 years ago believed 210 years later. It’s just ridiculous.”

    2. I would hesistate to draw comparisons between the named people and the founding fathers.

  4. GO TERPS! Its a good thing that Tip and the Gang passed this. Otherwise Juan Dixon’s parents would probably have become drug addicts and died and he wouldn’t have won a national championship for MD. Think of the children.

  5. I laugh whenever I see left-wingers try to blame the entire WOD on Reagan and the Republicans.

    1. A link to that idiot Kennedy family member is usually enough to shut that down.

    2. Considering that except for 81-86 (when the GOP controlled the Senate) the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, it’s kind of hard to lay the blame for anything that happened in the 80s exclusively on Reagan and/or the GOP.

      The eighties seem to have been a time when everyone was in a panic over drugs.

  6. Len Bias. Wow. Talk about a name I forgot about.

  7. Write me some goddamn legislation, he thundered. All anybody up in Boston was talking about was Len Bias. The papers were screaming for blood.

    The newspapers? The gatekeepers of Democracy? I don’t believe that.

  8. RE: How a Basketball Player’s Tragic Death Gave Us One Of The Worst Drug Laws Ever
    When Len Bias overdosed, Democrats saw an opportunity to outdo Republicans on drug war legislation. Three decades later, the cost is staggering.

    Len Bias’ death was a small price to pay to ensure billions of our tax dollars are wasted, our civil rights and civil liberties are evaporating daily on the war on drugs while tens of thousands of people died south of our border just so a bunch of bureaucrats with guns can wag their fingers (and guns) in our face when we choose to get high.
    I think we can all agree on that.

  9. “Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs”

    That’s beautiful, man.

  10. “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” Alexis de Tocqueville
    Some things never change

  11. God article and article within an article. Bias’ death was tragic. But Tip O’Neill and numerous other Congressmen clearly demonstrate that our Rule of Law is often in hands of evil trash such as O’Neill. I’ve many negatives with Obama but his pardoning of hundreds of non violent drug ‘criminals’ isn’t one. Dem after Dem and GOPer after GOPer we have seemingly endless self serving uncaring irresponsible politicians whose great value is me me,me. Severe term limits is far from perfect but beats the heck out of lifers such as McCain, Edward Kennedy (whose immigration policies were intended to severely damage America), Pelosi, Boehner and hundreds more. .

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