What have we learned since the death of Len Bias?

What have we learned since the death of Len Bias?

Thirty years ago, on June 19, 1986, a University of Maryland senior, Len Bias, died from a cocaine seizure  — just a few hours after he signed with NBA champions, the Boston Celtics. The sudden death of Bias, one of the greatest Maryland basketball stars, shocked the nation. Exploiting that shock, Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, one of the most catastrophically counterproductive criminal laws ever enacted.

The law infamously provided that the manufacture or sale (including conspiring to sell, attempting to sell, or possessing with intent to sell) of at least 5 or 50 grams of crack would result in mandatory minimum sentences of 5 or 10 years in prison, and up to 40 years or life imprisonment, respectively, all without parole.  This has resulted in thousands of decade-long and life sentences, overwhelmingly imposed on African-Americans. Less well known are the equally unjust horrors of similar sentencing provisions for offenses involving more than 1 gram or 10 grams of LSD. Similarly, the production or sale of more than 1000 pounds of marijuana makes a person eligible for a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years. Selling 100 pounds or growing more than 100 plants can result in a minimum of 5 years up to 40. These quantities can be reached through the accumulation of transactions, and the weights can be established simply by testimony – no actual drugs are necessary to prove these cases.

Throughout the Boston Celtics tragedy and the various narratives advanced during the 30-year struggle to end crack mandatories since then, most lost sight of the fact that Len Bias was a student when he died.

Bias was in his dormitory when his seizure started at 6 am, but it was not until 6:32 am that his friends called an ambulance. They naturally hesitated to call the authorities while evidence of cocaine was present.

Around the country, SSDP chapters have been essential advocates for enacting Good Samaritan laws and changing university disciplinary policies. These laws protect from arrest those who make a good faith call for help when there is an overdose or other drug-related medical emergency. After an effort led by their SSDP chapter, the University of Maryland became one of about 270 campuses around the nation that has some form of Good Samaritan policy according to a 2015 SSDP survey. These laws and policies are a key public health strategy and could’ve potentially saved Len Bias.

Unfortunately for Bias, America was still harshly condemning drug users in the 1980’s. A 1988 law, the User Accountability Act (21 U.S.C. 862), allowed a court to deny any kind of federal license (seaman, pilot, radio operator, use of grazing land, etc.) to a person with a drug conviction, even for the smallest possession guilty plea. Drug policy was designed for “zero tolerance” of drug use. Even as HIV/AIDS was killing injecting drug users (and their lovers and sex partners) year after year, key anti-drug officials, such as “drug czar” Barry McCaffrey, fought syringe exchange policies recommended by the public health establishment.

Responding to Bias’ death, Democratic House Speaker “Tip” O’Neill plotted an anti-drug political strategy for the Democrats to retake control of the Senate in November 1986. At that time, I was on the House Judiciary Committee Counsel responsible for federal drug laws, and saw both parties use drugs for political advantage

Since then, hundreds of thousands of men and women have been imprisoned for decades for relatively minor roles in the illegal drug trade, and hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent; however, the illegal drug industry has not diminished. Many neighborhoods remain devastated by addiction, crime, and violence. Even though more than two-thirds of crack users have always been white, the mandatory penalties for crack have overwhelmingly been applied by the U.S. Justice Department against African-Americans who are low-level offenders. Most regrettably, the laws haven’t saved lives. For 25 years I have been trying to make amends for my role in writing the mandatory minimums in 1986, especially for small amounts of crack cocaine and other drugs.

These days, most Americans agree that we made enormous mistakes 30 years ago in the machinations to exploit the death of a famous student.  Even though the number of drug overdose deaths is vastly larger now than 30 years ago, people in recovery, treatment professionals, community organizations, and government health departments are now rejecting the punishment and shame that are key features of the “war on drugs,” and are instead implementing policies that save lives. Closing prisons is on many agendas, and expanding programs of re-entry to keep people from relapsing is the focus of most correctional leaders.  

Michael Botticelli, the current White House “drug czar,” has fought the prejudice against medically assisted therapies that have the lowest relapse rates (but use methadone and buprenorphine). He has fought the mischaracterization of the drug problem as a “war” requiring zero tolerance against immature adolescents or desperate, broke drug users/sellers. He has pushed for life-saving, harm reduction approaches like sterile syringe exchanges and overdose prevention tools.

Even Congress is approaching the issue differently. In the second week of May, the House of Representatives passed a dozen bills to mobilize a public health response to the opioid epidemic. A bipartisan critical mass of Senators, through the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, seem to be on the verge of breaking up the 30 year-old structure of ultra-harsh sentencing for drug offenders.

It is encouraging news that federal judges continue to condemn the instances where they must follow the law and impose decade-long mandatory sentences on minor offenders brought to their courtrooms.

After a slow start, President Obama has dramatically stepped up the pace of issuing sentence commutations for federal prisoners. This is a huge shift toward compassion, even if compassion seems to be utterly missing in the dismembering of families and tens of thousands of deportations for minor drug offenses and other crimes.

Unfortunately, it seems that some federal prosecutors have been among the slowest to learn the lessons of the past 30 years. In Nebraska this winter, a U.S. Attorney prosecuted Leo Guthmiller, a recovered methamphetamine addict, in a case that District Judge John Gerrard called “absolutely ridiculous.” In some federal districts such as the Northern District of Ohio or Northern District of California, an analysis of sentencing data by SSDP Alumnus Amos Irwin suggests that the expanded anti-heroin effort is being misfocused toward small-scale cases. Shockingly, in many federal districts, it appears that low-level crack cases are still being brought only against people of color!

However, we see many signs of progress beyond the federal government. Many communities are on the threshold of institutionalizing reforms that will save lives. Health authorities are giving Naloxone to the friends and loved ones of drug users to prevent overdoses as soon as they are detected, minimizing the delay of waiting for first responders. In a rapidly growing number of police departments, instead of arresting users, officers on patrol are diverting them directly to treatment, skipping the justice system. Some officials, such as Ithaca, N.Y. Mayor Svante Myrick, want safe injection facilities in their cities. Around the world, in over 90 safe injection facilities, a fatal overdose has never occurred in the hundreds of thousands of instances of injection of illegal drugs.

This is an exciting time to be a student or citizen activist. We are having serious conversations about the range of strategies available to us. We are trying to assess what it means to be “effective.” We are debating new communications strategies and tactics, such as the role of civil disobedience.

There are many grounds for optimism and many accomplishments to praise, but the need for work by advocates like SSDP is as great as ever. Reformers need to promote increased awareness of the many legal, medical, cultural and economic problems associated with drugs, and their potential solutions. Thus we must reach ever-expanding diverse audiences with education about the issues, from the most basic to the most sophisticated. The process of attempting innovative and experimental solutions requires what students bring to the table: the highest values of respect for the individual, commitment to society and social justice, imagination, and expertise in evaluation, research and scholarship. Students bring a critical ingredient to the solution: firing up the political will to make the change.

The values of sensible drug policy have always been easier to articulate than the explication of the many policy elements that make sensible policies work across many political and cultural systems. At hundreds of SSDP chapters, this explication is taking place and being captured. And among the most visible roles that SSDP is playing in 2016 is the campaign for the legalization of adult use of cannabis by voter initiative in California, Massachusetts, Nevada, Arizona, and Maine, and the legalization of medical cannabis in Florida.

In 1986, the death of a student, Len Bias, triggered so many of the particular evils of the modern “war on drugs.”  Thirty years later, there is little doubt that the voice of SSDP will prevent similar student deaths and can fend off the political exploitation of such tragedies.


Eric E. Sterling, is a member of the SSDP Board of Directors and Executive Director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation in Silver Spring, MD. He was counsel to the House Judiciary Committee (1979-1989), and played a major role in developing the Anti-Drug Abuse of 1986.