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The Legacy of Len Bias

How death of basketball star helped
launch unjust war on drugs

by Jayson Hawkins

On June 19, 1986, Len Bias died of cardiac arrhythmia caused by a cocaine overdose. Bias was a basketball superstar at the University of Maryland and had been drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics only days before his death. Legendary basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said Bias was one of the most dominant players he had ever seen, and the young star’s death drew extraordinary media attention that had consequences still being felt decades later.

Bias’ death occurred as two other cultural streams were reaching a crescendo. The first was the Reagan-era offensive in the “war on drugs.” With Republicans criticizing Democrats as weak on crime, Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill was looking for the leverage to push a crime bill over the finish line so his party had a shot at retaking the Senate in November 1986. Meanwhile, the summer of that year saw the emergence of crack and sensationalized drug violence become the biggest news story in years.

The death of the young star personalized the issue for most Americans, despite the fact that Bias overdosed on powder and had no known association with crime of any other sort. The focus on his death created an impetus for O’Neill’s crime bill and a deluge of other anti-crime legislation that President Reagan gladly signed into law.

These laws were the beginning of the disparity between sentencing guidelines for powder and crack cocaine. The threshold for federal prosecution of crack cocaine was five grams; whereas, the threshold for powder was 500 grams. Because Blacks were more likely to be arrested for crack than whites, these laws led to a disproportionate number of Blacks serving extended prison sentences for drugs.

Four years after the “Bias Laws” were enacted, the average drug sentence for Blacks was 49% higher than for whites. These disparities worsened over the ensuing decades, often affecting young Black men who were not even born when Bias died.

In recent years, some positive changes have come as more and more of the public questions not only sentencing disparities but the logic of the war on drugs and mass incarceration in general. President Obama signed a law that greatly reduced sentencing disparities in 2010. Donald Trump pardoned dozens of Black prisoners serving long federal sentences for crack, and President Biden has pledged to eliminate disparities completely.

It has been 35 years since Bias’ death, but hopefully, this terrible legacy is finally being put to rest.  



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