The Washington Post
Op-Ed page (Also published by the Hartford Courant, the Spokane, WA Spokesman Review, and the Juneau, AK Empire)
Undo This Legacy of Len Bias's Death
By Eric E. Sterling and Julie Stewart
Saturday, June 24, 2006; A21
When Len Bias, the basketball star, overdosed on cocaine 20 years ago, Len Bias, the symbol, was born. To many he symbolized the corruption of college athletics -- stars whose academic performance is poor, if not irrelevant, but who are essential to bringing in donations and other revenue. To others, he became the object lesson: Cocaine is dangerous, don't do it, you can die. For yet others, Bias symbolizes the danger that arises when a powerful symbol overwhelms careful judgment about what ought to be the law.
Immediately after Bias's death, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr., from the Boston area (where Bias had just signed with the Celtics), issued a demand to his fellow Democrats for anti-drug legislation. Senior congressional staffers began meeting regularly in the speaker's conference room as practically every committee in the House wrote Len Bias-inspired legislation attacking the drug problem. News conferences around the Capitol featured members of Congress extolling their efforts to clamp down on cocaine and crack.
One result was the innocuous-sounding Narcotics Penalties and Enforcement Act, which became the first element of the enormous Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, hurried to the floor a little over two months after Bias's death. But the effect of the penalties and enforcement legislation was to put back into federal law the kind of clumsy mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that had been done away with 16 years before. And there they remain, 20 years and several hundred thousand defendants later.
Congress wanted to send several messages by again enacting mandatory minimums: to the Justice Department to be more focused on high-level traffickers; to major traffickers that the new penalties would destroy them; to the voters that members of Congress could fight crime as vigorously as the police and prosecutors. But Congress garbled the message. Instead of targeting large-scale traffickers, it established low-level drug quantities to trigger lengthy mandatory minimum prison terms: five grams (the weight of five packets of artificial sweetener), 50 grams (the weight of a candy bar), 500 grams (the weight of two cups of sugar) or 5,000 grams (the weight of a lunchbox of cocaine). Large-scale traffickers organize shipments of drugs totaling tons -- many millions of grams -- filling tractor-trailers, airplanes and fishing boats.
The Justice Department has compounded the problem by focusing on countless low-level offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission reports that only 15 percent of federal cocaine traffickers can be classified as high-level. Seventy percent are low-level. One-third of all federal cocaine cases involve an average of 52 grams, a candy bar-sized quantity of cocaine, resulting in an average sentence of almost nine years in prison without parole.
Not surprisingly, the federal prison population has exploded. From 1954 to 1976, it fluctuated between 20,000 and 24,000. By 1986 it had grown to 36,000. Today it exceeds 190,000 prisoners, up 527 percent in 20 years. More than half this population is made up of drug offenders, most of whom are serving sentences created in the weeks after Len Bias died.
Sadly, the nation's drug abuse situation is not much better after 20 years. Teenagers are using very dangerous drugs at twice the rate they did in the 1980s. The price of cocaine is much lower and the purity much higher, which tells us that the traffickers have become more efficient.
There is a trickle of hope that mandatory sentences as a legacy of Bias's death might come to an end. A handful of conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee have begun to question the wisdom of current mandatory minimum sentencing laws, and some vote against them. The first round of mandatory minimums for drug offenses, enacted in 1951, was repealed almost 20 years later, with bipartisan support. Among those who backed repeal was George H.W. Bush, then a congressman from Texas. With his son in the White House, this would be a good time for history to repeat itself, and for this sad legacy of Len Bias's death to finally end.
Eric E. Sterling, counsel to the House Judiciary Committee from 1979 to 1989, is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Julie Stewart is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
Thursday, June 29, 2006
Washington Post Op-Ed -- "Undo This Legacy of Len Bias's Death" By Eric E. Sterling and Julie Stewart
Olivia Judson, the biologist and journalist, wrote recently in her blog about the taboo of researching the genetics of the brain.
She noted that recent papers about genes that are involved in the growth of the brain led to such intense political speculation, one of the scientists retired from further research.
I offer this story as a kind of parable — an illustration of some of the grave difficulties in this field of research. And indeed, the difficulties are myriad. On the scientific side, there’s the problem of trying to figure out what different genes do, how they interact with the environment (this is crucial), and what we can say about our evolutionary past. Then there’s the usual job of interpreting results and of revising the picture as we learn more.
But that’s the least of it. As you can imagine, it is virtually impossible to work in an area as poisonously political as this one. On one side, you have neo-fascist groups twisting the most innocuous data out of shape; on the other, well-intentioned anti-racists who don’t even want the questions asked. Worse still, as the popular success of the “intelligent design” movement shows, it is not always easy to make sure that science is discussed rationally. Result: most geneticists are totally unnerved — and who can blame them?
As you read this, you realize that this can be applied to research in the area of drug use and abuse. Any research into the beneficial effects of the use of large classes of drugs is taboo.
Anyone who watched on C-SPAN the 20 minute debate in the U.S. House of Representatives on June 28, 2006 on the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment to limit DEA's prosecutions of medical patients who use cannabis in the states that permit such use must have been flabbergasted at the misuse and misunderstanding of science and data.
When intellectual dishonesty is the norm, serious people will seek to work in other fields where there work can be taken seriously.
Those of us who work in drug policy reform MUST remember that a critical part of our mission is to spread the domain of intellectual honesty into this field, not simply to win political battles. We have an obligation to respect and acknowledge facts -- even when they don't seem to support our conclusions or objectives. We have an obligation to reason correctly, not sloppily or lazily. It may be that some of our opponents are cruel, or hateful, or even sometimes racists, but it is not an argument to simply label them.
Sphere: Related Content
Thursday, June 22, 2006
George Monbiot, the noted British author, academic and journalist, wrote in the Guardian last fall about the process of applying the criminal law to political protest in the U.K.
This is a very thoughtful examination of a serious problem.
Thursday, June 08, 2006
Maia Szalavitz writes for The Huffington Post that in the Erie, PA trial of Dr. Paul Heberle (that I noted last week was reported by Maia for Reason Online), the commonwealth's expert witness, in reviewing the chart (the medical record) of a patient with AIDS, insisted that the common abbreviation of a very common, often fatal AIDS complication, pneumocystis carinii pneumonia -- PCP, was really the illegal drug, PCP. And the commonwealth's witness insisted that good medical practice would have been to deny the AIDS patient any more medical care!!
Cynthia Arnson, the director of the highly respected Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars, writes in the Miami Herald that the re-elected President of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, must focus on the economic and social problems of the society. Over the past four years, Uribe has redefined Colombia's problem as the greed of the narco-traffickers and their terrorism -- consistent with the U.S. political agenda. But in re-electing Uribe, more than half the country tells pollsters the country is moving in the wrong direction. Colombia has some of the greatest social inequality in the Western Hemisphere. It also has more internally displaced persons -- internal refugees -- than any country in the world but the Sudan (Darfur crisis) and the Congo!
Two-thirds of the rural population live in poverty -- two-thirds in extreme poverty (less than one dollar per day!). Growing a uniquely valuable cash crop like coca (and increasingly opium) is very attractive.
Uribe has a unique opportunity in his second term to make the hard choices that would make Colombia not only safer but also more equitable. He should use his overwhelming mandate to show that questions of poverty reduction and social policy are not the sole purview of left or populist regimes in the hemisphere, but rather, are central to overcoming the need and marginalization that continue to fuel conflict in Colombia.
Of course this means that Uribe has to de-emphasize Colombia's relyiance on America's coca eradication priorities, and militarization approaches.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
Reason reports about Dr. Paul Heberle who survived a state prosecution in Erie, Pennsylvania.