Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Len Bias and the War on Drugs

After watching the amazing ESPN documentary series' "30 for 30"'s latest episode, "Without Bias," I was struck by the impact Len Bias' death had on awareness of the dangers of cocaine, and on the drug laws. For those of you who don't know, Bias was a standout basketball player for the University of Maryland (check out highlight footage here). Bias was often compared to Michael Jordan, who we all know is the best basketball player that we've seen- his potential was through the roof. In fact,Celtics scout Ed Badger told the press at the time, "Len Bias is the closest thing to Michael Jordan to come out in a long time." Bias was drafted number two overall by the Boston Celtics at the 1986 NBA draft, and the following day went and signed a 1.6 million dollar deal with Reebok shoe company for an endorsement. That evening, Bias returned to the Maryland campus to spend time with his former teammates- and started to use cocaine. Around 6 AM that following morning, Bias started to have trouble breathing and went into seizure. After paramedics were called, Bias eventually succumbed to a cocaine overdose.

A month later, a Maryland grand jury returned indictments against Bias's friend Brian Tribble for possession of cocaine and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and Bias's Maryland teammates Terry Long (possession of cocaine and obstruction of justice) and David Gregg (possession of cocaine and obstruction of justice). All were found not guilty, although Tribble was later convicted of an unrelated cocaine trafficking charge.

The aftermath of Bias' death stretched out into the legal system. The Narcotics Penalties and Enforcement Act was supported by both parties and enforced stronger prison sentences for smaller amounts of drugs. From a Washington Post article: "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. "

So is Bias to blame for our current terrible prison and "War on Drugs" situation? The laws that were passed in the wake of his death have bled into a terrible problem in their own right. PBS Frontline did a great timeline on the War on Drugs, talking in specifics about the consequences of Bias' death. We can only hope that the mandatory minimum sentences that were established can be replaced by addiction rehab options for people who are struggling with addiction. Bias also brought a new level of awareness to the dangers of cocaine- in a way, he may have saved some lives with his example. That, we can hope, will be his legacy.

Here's a preview of the 30 for 30 episode. Check your local listings for the full show.

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