Home / General / The Archduke Ferdinand of the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs

The Archduke Ferdinand of the War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs


Great point about the how the tragic death of Len Bias turned into a disastrous policy legacy:

Bias’s death loosed all kinds of terrible ideas on the nation, foremost among them our famously destructive mandatory-minimum sentencing regime, which was enshrined into law in October 1986. It began the process of militarizing the sports world according to the hysterical exigencies of an unwinnable drug war, a process that accelerated when Ben Johnson tested positive for stanozolol at the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul and turned performance-enhancing drugs into the war’s newest rhetorical front.

Len Bias’s legacy is all around us even still. It’s the cup you have to pee in before starting a new job. It’s the demographic nightmare of crack sentencing. It’s the monthly freakout over recreational drug use among athletes. It’s Barry Bonds on the federal docket, being prosecuted by morons. It’s the ongoing attenuation of our Fourth Amendment rights, helped along by the work of sports league- and media-enabled drug warriors like Jeff Novitzky.

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  • Incontinential Buttocks

    Though we were pretty far down this rabbit hole already by the mid-1980s. If it hadn’t been Bias, it would have been some other famous person’s drug-related death that triggered the next step. So I guess that does make Len Bias the Franz Ferdinand here. But the deeper causes go back to Gov. Rockefeller (and deeper still, in certain ways, to reactions to the civil rights revolution).

    • Yeah, the HBO documentary on the Villanova/Georgetown championship game the year before is almost as much about cocaine as it is about basketball.

    • drkrick

      It might have needed to be the next famous person whose professional apprenticeship was in the DC suburbs and whose next job was supposed to be in the backyard of the serving Speaker of the House. There was a certain amount of not automatically replicable circumstance around the death of Len Bias that led to the ensuing panic.

  • dan

    Is there any real reason to think that Bias, even if he had lived, wouldn’t have turned out to be a bust like just about every other lottery pick that year?

    • I’d say the biggest reason is that Bias was not any of those other people.

      And the one guy taken ahead of him had a solid career that ended due to injury.

    • Richard

      Well, Daugherty had a good career until injuries hit. And Person, Harper and Salley had excellent careers. Bias was also coming to a team that was already solid but needed a player with his talents. He would have been a first rate player. On the other hand, Chris Washburn, the no. 3 pick, was probably the worst draft pick of all time.

      • Keaaukane

        Can’t be. Worst Draft Pick Ever is a title that is, and always will be, reserved for the Portland Failblazers. Golden State is a mere pretender.

        • Bill Murray

          I don’t think any Blazer pick went from top pick to homeless in less than 10 years as Washburn did. Evidently Washburn has been clean for more than 10 years now

        • Richard

          I would disagree with that assessment. Bowie’s rookie season with Portland wasn’t bad and then he broke his leg. After he recovered, he had four decent years with New Jersey.

          Washburn, on the other hand, played less than two years for Golden State and then was banned from the league for failing three drug tests. (Although reportedly recovered now, he became a crack addict on the streets of Oakland, showing up at the Oakland Arena to beg for money from former teammates)

          Plus, while it was a mistake to take Bowie over Jordan, Bowie’s broken leg was just weird and not expected from his health record playing college ball. On the other hand, Washburn had real issues while in college (stealing a stereo from a college roommate, reported drug problems, etc)

          I would give the worst draft pick ever award to the Warriors.

          • commie atheist

            As a Warriors fan, I have to agree. Sadly, it wasn’t the only time they failed to make good use of an early-round pick, especialy in the last 20 years: Joe Smith over Kevin Garnett…Todd Fuller over Kobe Bryant…Adonal Foyle over Tracy McGrady…Troy Murphy over Tony Parker…Mike Dunleavy Jr. over Amare Stoudamire…

            And, even though I normally hate Bill Simmons, he was pretty accurate in this deconstruction of their sorry draft history.

            • Keaaukane

              I concede to GS’s awfulness. I’m afraid they top the Failblazers.

          • John

            What about the Oden pick? Obviously Oden doesn’t have the personal problems Washburn did, but he’s been basically useless as an NBA player, and it was eminently foreseeable that he was injury prone. And the Blazers passed on Kevin Durant to take him.

            • Bill Murray

              Oden played 10 more games for the Blazers than Washburn did in his entire career (82-72) had ~1000 more minutes played and has scored ~520 more points and grabbed ~440 more rebounds. Even per 36 minutes Oden scores about 3 points and grabs 2 more rebounds than Washburn.

              So Oden has been significantly more useful than Washburn

              • Bill Murray

                Heck, given that Washburn had a negative win shares for his career, Bias actually was a better than draft pick than Washburn

          • Bowie wasn’t just taken over Jordan. He was also taken over Olajuwon.

            • Medrawt


        • Bill Murray

          Portland’s drafting has been awful though, between 2000 and 2012 the Blazers had 17 first round picks, only 2 (Zach Randolph and Damian Lillard) have averaged in double figures in points for their career (Lillard is a rookie this year)

          • Anonymous

            They did get Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge in 2006, albeit it not with their own original draft picks.
            Probably their worst moment was in 2005, when they could have drafted Chris Paul or Deron Williams. Instead, they traded down, drafting Martell Webster and Jarrett Jack.

        • Anonymous

          Joe Barry Carroll over Kevin McHale (plus giving up Robert Parish) must be a very good attempt at pretending, then.

          • Anonymous

            Ahh, looking back, Carroll wasn’t a bust.

            • commie atheist

              Um, there was a reason why his nickname was “Joe Barely Cares.” Decent numbers, pretty minimal impact.

        • drkrick

          Michael Jordan ought to be a contender. Kwame Brown as #1 #1 alone puts him in the conversation, with his subsequent record in Charlotte reinforcing the case.

  • anon

    How do folks here propose we deal with the social costs of drug use?

    How do they compare to other similar private activities that have social costs: poor diets, gun ownership, etc?

    And if it could be concluded that crack cocaine did impose greater social costs, could it be treated differently than other forms of cocaine, even if it had disparate racial effects?

    • djw

      How do folks here propose we deal with the social costs of drug use?

      There are many imperfect answers to this question, but it seems worth bearing in mind that criminalization does not, in fact, “deal with the social costs of drug use”.

      • If anything, it seems it would impose an even higher social cost. 2MM incarcerated prisoners in America, plus the fallout when they return to the real world. That’s an enormous burden on them, and in total an even bigger one to society, it seems to me.

    • brewmn

      First, you need to determine which of these “social costs” are imposed by virtue of the drug use itself as opposed to the fact that making it subject to criminal sanction means that only criminals use (to borrow a phrase), and especially, traffic on drugs. Then, you need to determine whether those social costs are better borne by the criminal justice system or by them public system.

      My guess is that any humane analysis would find that almost all of the crime associated with drug use is due to the fact that it’s illegal to sell possess, or use drugs, and that, for those whose drug use leads to behavior that must be addressed by public officials, the social costs will be best minimized if that use and behavior is treated as a health problem.

      • brewmn

        “traffic on” = “traffic in” and “them public system” should be “public health system.”

    • Origami Isopod

      How do folks here propose we deal with the social costs of drug use?

      If you are implying that “the social costs of drug use” — and I note you don’t define which “drugs” — outweigh the social costs of criminalization and its sequelae, you need to make a case for that assertion.

      • brewmn

        When Ronald McDonald gets life for pushing Big Macs on our unsuspecting youth, maybe then I’ll get on board with twenty-year sentences for a teenager getting pinched smoking a blunt in a city park.

        • Malaclypse

          When Ronald McDonald gets life for pushing Big Macs on our unsuspecting youth,

          Forget Big macs on youth. Fucking Happy Meal toys for toddlers. The things are an environmental disaster (crappy plastic with an expected play life of a couple of hours at most), they explicitly play up gender stereotypes, and my experience is that even if you explicitly say “no toy” you will get the toy anyway more than 50% of the time.

          • Loud Liberal

            And, they’re probably made out of melamine . . . in China.

    • Malaclypse

      How do folks here propose we deal with the social costs of drug use?

      We could tax drugs, and use the funds for harm mitigation. We can do this whether or not most social costs of drugs involve use, or the effects of prohibition itself.

    • Josh G.

      It costs about $50,000 a year to incarcerate someone in prison. The “social costs” of drug use would be less than they are now if we didn’t have any drug laws at all, and anyone could ingest whatever substances they wanted. That’s not optimal public policy, but it’s a sign of just how crazy our existing drug-law system is. The best way to manage the “social costs” of drug use is to legalize and tax the less harmful intoxicants (such as marijuana) and for the truly dangerous stuff, focus on a strategy of harm reduction rather than treating it as a law enforcement issue.

    • terry

      I guess I and some other ‘folks’ would urge legalization or at least decriminalization. And, how do ‘folks’ deal with the social costs of alcohol and other legal substances?

    • LeeEsq

      Mass incarceration is not a solution to the social costs of drug use. Like Prohibition, it only makes the social costs worse.

    • Hogan

      How do folks here propose we deal with the social costs of drug use?

      I propose we pay them.

  • Josh G.

    The article you linked doesn’t even mention the best part: the 100-to-1 crack-to-powder ratio in the 1986 drug law was inspired by the testimony of Johnny “Jehru” St. Valentine Brown… who later turned out to be a recidivist perjurer who regularly lied his ass off on the stand in drug cases. (Among other things, he told juries that he was a degreed and licensed pharmacist – total BS.)

    Salon had an excellent article in June 2011 on this same issue (see here.)

    • Anonymous

      On top of the fact that Bias died from an almost pure dose of cocaine. Then again, look at what kind of people that were using crack, and this makes more sense.

  • In doing a little background to see if, indeed, Bias was the first and highest profile athlete to die directly of a drug overdose that wasn’t suicide — indeed, he appears to have been the most famous and among the first — I ran across a list on Wikipedia of drug-related deaths among celebrities.

    Wow. Wow.

    The professional wrestlers alone could fill a book.

    • I don’t know if it still runs, but Deadspin’s “Dead Wrestler of the Week” series used to be excellent. A lot more nostalgic and reverential than you’d think given the title.

    • Malaclypse

      That list is bullshit. They even think Elvis is dead.

      • rea

        Elvis died for our sins, but is risen again–and working in a Burger King in Kalamazoo

      • Aw, man! Deadspin sold out to the man?

      • Hogan

        It’s like they’ve never even seen Bubba Ho-Tep.

    • commie atheist

      I noticed the entry for George V (“Profession: King”).

      I wasn’t aware of this

      By 20 January, he was close to death. His physicians, led by Lord Dawson of Penn, issued a bulletin with words that became famous: “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.”[94][95] Dawson’s private diary, unearthed after his death and made public in 1986, reveals that the King’s last words, a mumbled “God damn you!”,[96] were addressed to his nurse when she gave him a sedative on the night of 20 January. Dawson wrote that he hastened the King’s death by giving him a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine. Dawson noted that he acted to preserve the King’s dignity, to prevent further strain on the family and so that the King’s death at 11:55 pm could be announced in the morning edition of The Times newspaper rather than “less appropriate … evening journals”.[96][97]

      Add to: things that make you go “hmmmmm.”

  • John Protevi

    When they are on their game, Deadspin produces better sports journalism than just about any other outlet.

    • L2P

      When they’re off their game, too.

      And given that most non-sports journalism can barely top the SI Swimsuit issue for insight and journalistic integrity, in my book that makes Deadspin one of the best in the journalism business.

      • “Deadspin one of the best in the journalism business”

        They’re still a bit too gossip obsessed for my tastes (Gawker property, and all that), but it’s improved tremendously since they kicked Daulerio first upstairs and thence to the curb.

  • Uncle Ebeneezer

    Immediately upon returning from the July 4 recess, Tip O’Neill called an emergency meeting of the crime-relate committee chairmen. Write me some goddamn legislation, he thundered. All anybody up in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. The papers are 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.

    The old let’s-out-Conservative-the-Conservatives approach is always a such a great recipe for success. Without it we would have never secured that Dukakis landslide in ’88. But hey, Tip used to have drinks with Republicans so it’s all good.

  • montag

    And let’s not forget Tip O’Neill in the Len Bias business. Len Bias was going to be the replacement for Larry Bird that was going to keep the Celtics franchise in the money for years to come. If I recall the story correctly, O’Neill was in Massachusetts when the news of Bias’ death was reported, and by the time he got back to Washington, he was out for vengeance, and he had an idiot in the White House who would gladly hand him the sword.

    • Anonymous

      It stated that in the article. O’Neill also thought that if he didn’t act quickly, Reagan would be able to take advantage of the issue.

  • Shakezula


    No seriously, all of this shit is going on in my backyard and I had to think a while before I remembered. I’m surprised anyone has the gall to posture over this.

    Anyway, agreed that if it hadn’t been Bias it would have been someone else. I will note that this is probably one of the few times in history that the members of Congress have given a fuck about one dead black kid.

    • sparks

      Cherish it. It may be the last time, too.

  • Manta

    Aren’t you mixing 2 different things, recreational drugs and performance-enhancing drugs?

  • Ben Fall

    Shame on you for reminding me how freakin’ shitty the ’80s were. With the likes of Tip fucking O’Neil, Raygun, the first goddamn Bush, holy crap, I’m about to hurl. You are making me sick.

    • Woodrowfan

      but, but, but, Duran Duran!!!!

      • Hogan

        I’m sorry, the correct answer was The Go-Gos.

  • Joe
  • Elk

    I thought it was Lester Bangs’ death that caused all this unpleasantness.

    Barry Bonds’ situation is best described as karma.

    • “Barry Bonds’ situation is best described as karma.”


      • commie atheist

        Barry Bonds’ situation is best described as, shit, if McGwire and Sosa are gonna get all that attention, I’ll do what they’re doing, and I’ll make people forget they even existed. And it would have worked, too…

      • commie atheist

        Barry Bonds’ situation is best described as, shit, if McGwire and Sosa are gonna get all that attention, I’ll do what they’re doing, and I’ll make people forget they even existed. And it would have worked, too…

  • Elk

    Yeah. Bonds is a humongous dick.

    • The jails are already full. Dickery is still not illegal.

      • Loud Liberal

        No worries! Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group are more than happy to build more.

      • Anonymous

        If it was, they would have to take Jeff Kent as well.

        • tucker

          True dat. But he’s trying to rehabilitate himself on “Survivor” and KNBR. Successful? Time will tell.

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