Bias' unintended legacy

June 23, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- Twenty years have passed since the cocaine-induced death of basketball wizard Len Bias touched off a war against drugs. His legacy, in the odd way that politics plays out, is harsher penalties for crack cocaine, which is not quite the same drug that he used.

On June 19, 1986, two nights after the Boston Celtics selected him as a first-round draft pick, he 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 Mr. Bias' tragedy is the one most remembered. The 6-foot-8 University of Maryland basketball star appeared to be destined for greatness.

Grief was particularly pronounced in Boston, where Celtics fans hoped Mr. Bias would team up with future Hall of Famer Larry Bird for a few years and then take leadership of the franchise.

"All anybody in Boston is talking about is Len Bias," noted Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts, according to Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, by Dan Baum. In early July of that year, Mr. O'Neill ordered his party's leadership to introduce anti-drug legislation.

Black leaders shared the outrage. Bill Cosby, voicing an indignation that would years later make headlines, joined the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson on a Chicago stage to call for federal and citizen action. "For too long, we've been blaming other people," said Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Jackson would decry the sentencing discrepancy between powder and crack cocaine, the new cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine, that resulted in black men receiving long-term prison sentences at a much higher rate than whites.

It turned out that Mr. Bias had died from powder cocaine.

Curiously, the law and public outrage back then were targeted most strongly against crack cocaine. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act contained new mandatory minimum sentences, a death penalty provision for drug "kingpins" and no parole for even minor, first-time possession offenses. Congress also established tougher sentences for crack cocaine offenses.

This was justified, many believed, because crack was associated with violent crimes and ruined lives in poor neighborhoods. Yet, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, created by Congress in 1984 to develop fair federal sentencing guidelines, concluded that the violence resulted from neighborhood conditions, not the drug, which was not appreciably different from powder cocaine, either in its chemical composition or the physical reactions of its users.

Although about two-thirds of crack users are white or Hispanic, the commission found, more than 80 percent of those convicted in federal courts of crack possession or trafficking in the mid-1990s were black.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that sentencing guidelines should be advisory, not mandatory. Some judges have begun to depart from the guidelines. In one recent example, U.S. District Judge Gregory A. Presnell 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 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 does not spur a renewed public demand for humane alternatives to long prison sentences, nothing will.

Clarence Page is columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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