The 20-Year Charge of the Wildebeests

Monday, June 19th, 2006

Twenty years ago, Maryland basketball star Len Bias died, presumably from a toxic reaction to cocaine. His death was tragic, but the response to it from lawmakers, pundits, and policymakers was arguably one of the more destructive overreactions in the history of Congress, particularly when you consider what the rash of policies passed in the wake of Bias’s death did to the Bill of Rights, and the violence, death, and injury they’ve since effected. Perhaps no single event is more responsible for pit of Drug War insanity we now look up from. Bias’s death even had an immediate effect on the issue we’ve been talking about for the last week — the no-knock drug raid.

I hope he doesn’t mind, but I’m going to quote at length from former Wall Street Journal reporter Dan Baum’s indispensible history of the drug war, Smoke and Mirrors. Though a bit outdated now, it’s the most comprehensive, authoritative, and fascinating account of how we got to where we are I’ve yet read. If you want to convince someone of the folly, flawed logic, and baldly political motives involved in the Drug War, have them read Baum’s book.

The Washington media is aflutter today with reflections on Bias’s death. If you get the chance, pass on the link to this post to a few people, and help show the other side of this story.

Baum’s account is told from the point of view of Eric Sterling. Sterling was a congressional aide through much of the 1980s who helped write many of this country’s more draconian drug laws. He has since flipped on the drug war, and is now an eloquent and outspoken critic.

Click “more” to read on.

[Excerpted from Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, by Dan Baum]

On his way to work one swampy June morning that year, Eric Sterling noticed in the paper that Len Bias had died the night before. Strange, Sterling thought; Bias was so young. But not being a sports fan, Sterling wasn’t much interested in the story.

Until he arrived at work.

It was like Pearl Harbor had just been bombed; nobody in the Longworth House Office Building was talking about anything but Bias.

Apparently, upon returning to his University of Maryland home after the Celtics signing ceremony in Boston, Bias had celebrated hard with some friends. Late on the night of June 18, he suddenly said he didn’t feel well and went to lie down. He never got up.

[Note: Bias had just signed a contract with the Celtics — home team of then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill — as the number two overall pick in the NBA draft.]

His heart had failed, and it was the opinion of the Maryland medical examiner that cocaine poisoning had killed him. Because his stardom had hinged in part on a squeaky-clean image, the assumption was that the dose of cocaine that killed him had been his first. The press and public, primed to the idea of “instantaneous addiction,” assumed that first taste was crack. (It never was established what type of cocaine Bias took, or whether it was his first time.)

Congress’ hometown basketball hero, the nation’s model for healthy young black manhood, had been cheated out of his contract with the Speaker’s championship hometown team, and the culprit was the most terrifying drug on the street. It isn’t just a match in a tank of gasoline, Sterling thought, it’s a blowtorch in a tank of nitroglycerin.

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.

The same week Len Bias died, coincidentally, William Rehnquist was nominated to replace Warren Burger as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.


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. The advertising industry donated a billion dollars worth of ads and TV time to the antidrug cause. “We’re on the verge,” Bill Rhatican of the Ad Council told U.S. News & World Report. “On this issue, we’re ready to go over the top!”

On July 27, a second black athlete, the Cleveland Browns’ Don Rogers, dropped dead from cocaine poisoning. Though it wasn’t clear how often Rogers had used cocaine before, the lessons of Bias’s death were repeated in the press: cocaine can kill the strongest and most disciplined among us, even when used a single time. The same day, ABC News introduced a type of TV report that hadn’t yet been seen in the Drug War but would become a network standard: raid footage. The network sent a news crew on a crack-house raid and aired breathless, hand-held footage that put the viewer right there with the police as they smashed a door and charged in.

Police and DEA loved such reports because they helped the viewing public identify with the raiders. And it was easy to enlist news crews to come along. Crack, said the head of the DEA New York office, “is the hottest combat-reporting story to come along since the end of the Vietnam War.” After ABC’s report, raid clips became part of the networks’ image bank and snippets of raids appeared in about a quarter of all Drug War reports during the next two years, continually reinforcing the public’s identification with the well-armed guys in ski masks bashing in the door.

In his seven years working for Congress, Sterling had never seen such a frenzy grip the Capitol. Usually, committees would hold hearings on a bill, refine points of law, and finally bring the bill into a markup session to polish the language. Now, though, members were having staff members draw up hardline proposals and rushing them straight into markup sessions — without benefit of hearings. Sterling found himself in one such session, in which members of the Crime Subcommittee found themselves, by the seat of their pants, writing laws to put the drug defendants’ attorneys in prison.

It’s not enough to seize their fees, Congressman Clay Shaw of Florida argued. “The only way we will get at this [drug] problem is to let the whole community, the whole population, know that [defense attorneys] are part of the problem and they could very well be convicted if they knowingly take these funds. Congressman Dan Lundgren of California, an attorney, wanted to exempt lawyers but nobody else who deals with a drug pusher. Make it illegal for a dry cleaner or a grocery store to take money from a drug dealer, he argued, an dif they do, seize the business. Put the merchant in jail. “The whole Len Bias story, it seems to me, suggests we have been far too lenient,” Lungren said. Romano Mazzoli of Kentucky agreed but added, “I don’t really think lawyers ought to be given a preference here, some sort of special status . . . We are trying to fight this conspiracy of violence, a conspiracy of action in which unfortunately some lawyers have been involved.”

Chairman Bill Hughes, the former prosecutor, urged everybody to cool off. To do their jobs properly, he said, defense attorneys have to learn as much as possible about their clients’ affairs. Make it crime for a lawyer to take fees from a somebody he knows is guilty, Hughes said, “and the more he finds out, the more he possibly is exposing himself for criminal prosecution.” Hughes was able to table the discussion.

A few days later, the subcommittee met again without holding hearings to “do something” permanent about such “designer drugs” as MDMA. Dan Lungren waved around the source of his knowledge on the subject: “Now I got the most recent article or the most recent issue of Discovery magazine, August,” he said, “and its article is ‘Beyond Crack: The Growing Peril of Designer Drugs.'” On the basis of Discovery’s article, Lungren wanted the definition of a designer drug to read, “a substance which has a stimulant, depressant, or hallucinogenic effect on the central nervous system.” Sterling, taking notes, stifled a groan. That would include coffee, alcohol, and a long list of pharmaceuticals, he thought. But protocol required Sterling to speak only if answering a member’s question, and nobody was asking any questions.


Where the 1986 drug law really departed from tradition was in its adoption of mandatory minimum sentences. In most cases where federal law speaks to a sentence, it is set to maximum limits . . .In nearly two hundred years, Congress had passed only fifty-eight mandatory minimum sentences.

In the aftermath of Len Bias’s death, Congress added another twenty-nine mandatory minimums — a fifty percent increase in four months . . .By the time Congress was finished, first-offense, small-quantity street dealing could result in a mandatory minimum of ten paroleless years in a federal prison.

Carlton Turner approved heartily. “If we have mandatories for a first offense,” he said, “we won’t have people back out in our streets committing crimes.”

On July 31, Hughes opened the bidding with a mandatory penalty of five years for possession “with intent to sell” of 20 grams of crack or 500 grams of cocaine. “Not plea bargainable, no probation or parole,” he said. William McCollum, Republican of Florida, urged Hughes higher. “I don’t think we ought to be embarrassed,” he said. “It would be embarrassing if we came in and wound up being less tough when we put a bill out this fall.”

George Gekas, Republican of Pennsylvania, wanted to cut to the chase. “I do intend to pursue the death penalty in narrowly circumscribed cases of drug abuse,” he said. “I mean, drug trafficking.”

Hughes rolled his eyes. He knew Judiciary Chairman Peter Rodino would kill any bill that contained it . . . But Gekas kept talking death penalty. Finally, Hughes held up a hand.

“We’re all inclined to really sock it to people,” he said, “Everybody wants to be tough on criminals . . .But I think that we have to make sure what we do makes sense.”

Hughes, with his no-plea-bargaining stance, knew he was courting chaos. The biggest experiment with mandatories in recent years was New York’s 1973 “Rockefeller laws” . . . Despite a big expansion of New York’s court system, a 2,600-case backlog developed in the first eighteen months.

And neither the crime nor the addiction rates in New York improved.

Likewise, there was federal experience with mandatory minimums to draw upon. In 1956 Congress enacted mandatory sentences for various drug laws, but repealed them in 1972 because they “had not shown the expected overall reduction in drug law violations.”

Hughes’ subcommittee might have known all this had it held hearings on the wisdom and efficacy of mandatory sentences. It didn’t, though. With crack leading the morning paper and the evening news every day that summer, there was “no time.” Similarly, the subcommittee didn’t learn about a new federal survey suggesting that tough drug enforcement doesn’t discourage drug abuse. Rather, fully three-fifths of the drug-using prison inmates surveyed had not tried drugs until after their first arrest.


Eric Sterling had once seen a film shooting Tanzania; a million wildebeest grazing peacefully, until one of them started running. Assuming danger, a few more joined in, and in no time, the whole heard was stampeding wildly, trampling the sick and the slow, laying waste to the flora and fauna alike in a senseless headlong panic. Those images kept occurring to him as he watched Congress in the weeks following Len Bias’s death.

“I don’t see how it is possible to make some decisions until we find out exactly what we are talking about,” Hughes said. His subcommittee was back at it, talking about criminalizing cornstarch.


Congress, meanwhile, continued throwing together what it hoped would be the biggest, baddest drug bill in all of history. With no time for hearings, legislators informed themselves from television, magazines, constituents’ letters, and each other’s increasingly florid statements to the TV cameras. Clay Shaw of Florida declared drugs, “the biggest threat that we have ever had to our national security.” House majority leader Jim Wright of Texas upstaged him by calling drugs, “a menace draining away our economy of some $230 billion this year, slowly rotting away at the fabric of our society and seducing and killing our young.” The $230 billion figure — roughly equal to the Social Security budget — apparently was plucked from thin air.

The bills flew fast and furious. No more probation for druggies! No more suspended sentences! Death penalty for kingpins! A billion dollars for new prisons! A billion for state and local narcotics squads! Repeal the exclusionary rule! Elevate the drug czar to cabinet status! Urine-test all federal employees!


Drugs are “a threat worse than any nuclear warfare or any chemical warfare on any battlefield,” South Carolina Republican Thomas Hartnett said, sponsoring a measure to force the president to stop all drug smuggling within 45 days. Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia called it, “the equivalent of passing a law saying the president shall, by Thanksgiving, devise a cure for the common cold.”

It passed anyway.

The drug bill’s absurdity and political utility were plain for all to see. It’s “out of control,” David McCurdy of Oklahoma told Newsweek, “but of course I’m for it.”


On September 2, fifteen million people watched the CBS News documentary “48 Hours on Crack Street.” It was the biggest news audience in six years. NBC followed three days later with “Cocaine Country.” And not to be outdone, Geraldo Rivera ran a special of his own, “The Doping of a Nation,” that argued for expanded drug treatment while showing almost nothing but raid footage and other thrilling scenes of law enforcement.”


Deserters from the war were figuratively taken out and shot. At the height of the summer hype, Paula Hawkins, the Republican of Florida, rose on the House floor to accuse the Washington Post of treason in the War on Drugs. She cited the Post’s “sustained attack” on the administration’s Drug War, its “extensive coverage of the ACLU’s opposition to drug testing,” the “bad press” it gave the “tough but successful drug treatment program operated by Straight, Inc.” and its habit of letting “long-time advocates of illicit drug use” publish essays on the op-ed page. The real problem, she implied, is the First Amendment.


As Richard Nixon had noticed almost two decades earlier, Americans were more willing to believe television than their own experience. Three-quarters of Americans polled that summer said they believed drugs a terrible problem “for the country.” And yet barely a third of the same people said drugs were a problem in their own community.

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