How The 1986 Death of Basketball Star Len Bias Intensified The Drug War

By Seth Ferranti 06/21/16

The death of the promising basketball star was used as a major political selling point for the War on Drugs in the '80s.

How The 1986 Death of Basketball Star Len Bias Intensified The Drug War
College Basketball Star Len Bias via WikiCommons

Len Bias was a college basketball superstar at the University of Maryland and the future franchise player for the Boston Celtics, who drafted him as their second overall pick in 1986, envisioning him as a replacement for Celtic legend Larry Bird. Bias was primed to become the next big thing in the NBA, but instead, he became the poster child for the War on Drugs. His cocaine overdose, days after he was drafted, re-ignited the national debate that was being fueled by Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign and the Cocaine Cowboys from Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel.

The Democrats used Bias’ death to ramp up the War on Drugs rhetoric and outmaneuver their Republican colleagues in Congress. With the crack epidemic in full effect and prohibition-related violence in the inner city getting out of control, our government decided to do something drastic. At law enforcement's urging, Congress enacted mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, with five grams of crack triggering a five-year sentence. Our federal prison population exploded, turning the United States into incarceration nation.

"We have 214,000 people in prison and that is only talking federal prison," Julie Stewart, the president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums tells The Fix. "Over half of them, 51%, are drug offenders. So what are we doing? Why are we incarcerating people for decades, literally, for crimes that are in many cases not even considered by the public to be a big deal anymore? At the time when these laws were passed it was one thing, now we are at the point where the public is overwhelmingly supporting sentencing reform. It just doesn't make any sense for the kind of laws that have been on the books for so long to continue to be there.”

The laws were as racist as they were draconian, and everything that was plaguing society seemed to be blamed by the media on the menacing “young black male,” who was better armed than police, lived and sold crack in the projects, and wasn’t afraid to shoot it out with law enforcement. President Obama has done what he can to undo the damage, but the effects are still being felt. Our government declared a war on its own people and imprisoned not only dealers under the new laws, but addicts also.

“The people who are driving the drug war are the addicts,” Bruce Porter, the New York Times best-selling author of Blow, tells The Fix. “This is not a new idea, but if there was a diversion of the hundreds and hundreds of millions and billions of dollars we spend on law enforcement over to addiction prevention, it might have something to do with this. It certainly is ironic that marijuana is being legalized and so many people are still in prison for smuggling marijuana all over the country. It seems to be greatly out of balance.”

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After landing on the US Marshals Top-15 Most Wanted list and being sentenced to a 25 year sentence in federal prison for a first-time, nonviolent LSD offense, Seth built a writing and journalism career from his cell block. His raw portrayals of prison life and crack era gangsters graced the pages of Don DivaHoopshype and VICE. From prison he established Gorilla Convict, a true-crime publisher and website that documents the stories that the mainstream media can’t get with books like Prison Stories and Street Legends. His story has been covered by The Washington PostThe Washington Times, and Rolling Stone.

Since his release in 2015 he’s worked hard to launch GR1ND Studios, where true crime and comics clash. GR1ND Studios is bringing variety to the comic shelf by way of the American underground. These groundbreaking graphic novels tell the true story of prohibition-era mobsters, inner-city drug lords, and suburban drug dealers. Seth is currently working out of St. Louis, Missouri, writing for The FixVICEOZY, Daily Beast, and Penthouse and moving into the world of film. Check out his first short, Easter Bunny Assassin at You can find Seth on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.