Sometimes solutions can have drastic unintended consequences. Mike Krzyzewski, one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time, once told the Washington Post: “During my years as a coach, the two most dominant players we’ve faced were Michael Jordan and Len Bias”. Bias was a star for the University of Maryland, and was selected as the second overall pick in the 1986 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics, where he would play alongside such legends as Larry Bird. But on 19 June 1986 at 6.30am, months before Bias was due to step on to a court as a professional, a 911 operator received a call that changed both sports and US history.
In my book, Tiger Woods’s Back and Tommy John’s Elbow, I examine athlete deaths and tragedies and how their consequences ripple outward resulting in something called the Cobra Effect. The Cobra Effect is based on an anecdote from India during the days of the British empire. At the time, the cobra population was out of control. In order to curb the epidemic, a local governor decided to put a bounty on cobra skins. Unbeknownst to officials, farmers began to breed cobras to skin for bounties. Once the scheme was discovered, the bounty program was cancelled. With no market for their cobras, the farmers released them into the wild, increasing the snake population. As a result, what was supposed to be a solution created a worse problem. The reaction to Bias’s death fell into the Cobra Effect.
Bias had returned to school to see his close friends following a whirlwind NBA draft weekend. Just two days later, at the age of 22, Bias died of cardiac arrhythmia caused by a cocaine overdose. His death received significant media attention (indeed, it is still of interest now and is currently the subject of a well received podcast) during a time when the US government was doubling down on its war on drugs. The death of the star was a catalyst for drug laws that would end up hurting, rather than helping, young black men.
A few years earlier, bipartisan efforts had helped pass new laws on drug reform and sentencing. Then in the summer of 1986, crack cocaine was suddenly all over the media: Newsweek called crack the biggest story since Vietnam and Watergate, while Time labeled it “the issue of the year”. And Bias, one of the most famous young men in America, became a symbol of the dangers of the drug, despite the fact that he had died after using powder, rather than crack, cocaine.
Democrat House speaker Tip O’Neill hoped that the raw emotion of the Bias tragedy would help push forward a bill against drugs that could help his party reclaim the Senate in the 1986 election (it was also no coincidence that O’Neill represented Boston, where Bias was due to play before his death). In this way, the Democrats would be seen as being tough on crime when voters looked to the ballots in November.
Suddenly, government committees of all kinds were drafting anti-drug and anti-crime legislation. In the span of a few weeks, committees that usually had nothing to do with drugs – such as those dealing with agriculture, education and labor – were drafting anti-drug legislation. Politicians from both parties wanted to be seen as doing something – anything – about drugs.
Shortly after Labor Day, the House passed its version of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and it was soon was signed into law by President Reagan. The bill furthered mandatory minimum sentences for drug dealers, and also called for life imprisonment for anyone who dealt drugs that resulted in the death of another person. The latter measure was no doubt inspired by one of Bias’s friends who allegedly supplied the drugs that killed the young player (he was later acquitted of the charges). The legislation is now commonly known as the Len Bias Laws.
As part of the law, Congress decided to establish a threshold quantity of drugs that could be prosecuted under federal law. The trigger became five grams of anything containing a detectable amount of crack cocaine. Once this threshold was met, it would trigger a minimum sentence of five years for anyone convicted of a drug-related crime. In contrast, the threshold for powder cocaine became 500g.
This was based on the misguided perception that crack had a higher link to crime and a greater propensity for causing an epidemic of “crack babies”. These myths have since been proven false. Studies have shown that similar biological effects are found in developing brains that are exposed to either crack or powdered cocaine. Meanwhile, the violence related to the crack trade has been shown to be similar to crimes associated with other drugs and not necessarily specific to crack itself.
This was significant as a 2006 study showed African Americans are more likely to be convicted of crack-related crimes, while white Americans are more likely to be convicted of offenses related to powdered cocaine. Put simply, a black cocaine user or dealer was far more likely to receive a long sentence than a white one. Before the 1986 act, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 11% higher than for whites. Four years later, after the act was initiated, the average federal drug sentence for African Americans was 49% higher. Data has also shown that the overall problem is further compounded in that white drug abusers are less likely to be prosecuted for drug offenses, and when they are prosecuted, they are more likely to be acquitted. Furthermore, if they are convicted, they are much less likely to be sent to prison. Since the Len Bias laws took effect, racial differences in drug-related sentencing have become even more apparent.
The positive news is that the mistakes from the laws are slowly being corrected. In 2010, through the bipartisan Fair Sentencing Act under President Obama, the amount of crack that triggered prosecution under federal laws was raised significantly to 28g. Now, Joe Biden’s administration is looking to permanently change the disparity in sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. That won’t change the fact that black Americans have for years been disproportionately imprisoned compared to white Americans. But, 35 years after Bias’s tragic death, it is perhaps a start.
Credit: Source link