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Did a single D.C. cocaine overdose launch the war on crack?

George P. Pelecanos, the chronicler of postwar D.C.’s decline and fall, ended his 1998 novel, The Sweet Forever, with Dimitri Karras running into Nick Stefanos, who is standing in front of a Connecticut Avenue appliance shop with his arm over the shoulder of a young black guy:

As he neared them, Karras saw the televisions in the window were all tuned to the same image: Len Bias, wearing that jazzy ice green suit of his, standing out of his chair at the calling of his name.

All right, it was news. But why were they running the draft highlights again, two days after the fact?

“Nick?” said Karras.

Stefanos and the boy turned their heads.

The black kid was crying freely, tears running down his cheeks.

“Dimitri,” said Stefanos, his eyes hollow and red.

Karras felt hot and suddenly nauseous in the sun…

That was a powerful and fitting ending for a noirish tale set against the District’s mid-’80s gun- and drug-fueled devolution into the nation’s most notorious Dodge City. So powerful was the Len Bias legend, in fact, that Pelecanos didn’t even bother, a dozen years after the fact, to tell his readers exactly what had happened to the University of Maryland basketball star.

On June 17, 1986, the Boston Celtics chose Bias as the NBA’s second overall draft pick. Two days later, D.C.’s hometown hero, age 22, was dead of an apparent cocaine overdose. With an unctuous Dan Rather whiling away “48 Hours on Crack Street” and the rest of the media pack in a froth over a purported nationwide epidemic of cocaine smoking, it was immediately assumed and promptly reported that Bias had been killed by crack.

Amid the torrent of overheated coverage of the Bias tragedy, ABC News even featured the late Bias in a moralizing “Person of the Week” feature. The cocaine-related death just a month later of yet another black athlete, the Cleveland Browns’ Don Rogers, only fueled the media feeding frenzy.

“In life, Len Bias was a terrific basketball player,” Dan Baum wrote in his 1996 study, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. “In death, he would become the Archduke Ferdinand of the Total War on Drugs…. Within weeks, the country would be marching, bayonets fixed.”

As sad as Bias’ death was for family and friends and hometown fans—and as much excitement as the media wrung from the tragedy—the strongest impact of that random 1986 overdose in suburban Maryland came on Capitol Hill. With the Ronald Reagan administration reaping political hay from its escalating jihad against drugs and drug users, Democrats, then still in control of the House of Representatives, were damned if they would be cast as slackers in the struggle. Returning home from a July recess in his Boston district, home of the Celtics, House Speaker Tip O’Neill vowed to pass some sort of tough omnibus anti-drug bill before the midterm elections in November.

In the months following Bias’ untimely demise, both parties strove mightily to outdo each other in their rhetorical and legislative zeal to annihilate once and for all the menace of crack and other drugs. Declaring drugs “a threat worse than any nuclear warfare or any chemical warfare waged on any battlefield,” Rep. Thomas Hartnett (R-S.C.) even pressed a bill directing the White House to end all drug smuggling within 45 days. In the climate of the day, that quixotic, if not downright mindless, measure passed easily.

Indeed, many of the most constitutionally dubious of the anti-drug measures now in force date back to the Summer That Len Bias Died. The workplace urine testing that is so routine today that few seem even to question it, for instance, is largely the artifact of an executive order signed by Reagan in September 1986.

Of the anti-drug measures introduced in the wake of Bias’ death, the most notorious is mandatory minimum sentencing, which ties the hands of judges when they weigh the fates of convicted drug felons. Eric E. Sterling, then an assistant counsel to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime—now president of the reform-oriented Criminal Justice Policy Foundation—still recalls with rueful amazement the arbitrary process whereby committee staffers simply plucked numbers out of thin air in setting sentencing guidelines for possession or distribution of different quantities of different drugs.

So eager was Congress to rush the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act onto Reagan’s desk before the election—which it did, by wide bipartisan majorities and with a week to spare—the bill largely evaded the gantlet of public hearings through which such major legislation, affecting the lives of millions, must usually pass.

With the specter of Bias haunting them, the vampire-slayers of Capitol Hill decided that possession of crack cocaine—the Demon Drug of the day—should be punished 100 times more severely than possession of powder cocaine. In practical terms, the distinction between crack and powder cocaine is no greater than that between instant oatmeal and old-fashioned rolled oats. But given the realities of drug markets, the crack/powder sentencing discrepancy served only to further skew the already appallingly unbalanced racial impact of the war on drugs.

In other words, thanks in large part to the death on June 19, 1986, of a young black athlete, hundreds of thousands of other young black men are serving disproportionately long sentences in overcrowded prisons for possession and sale of a form of a drug that—hold on for a final irony—it turns out Len Bias never even used. Yes, by the time the Anti-Drug Abuse Act became law, in late October 1986, it had long since been officially determined that, initial reports to the contrary, Bias had actually been using plain old powdered cocaine when his heart stopped. CP