The Death of Len Bias and Systemic Injustice

Len Bias was on top of the world. A college basketball star, he was drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association and signed a multimillion dollar shoe deal with Reebok. On the court, he was a basketball phenom, and off the court, he was a role model and inspiration to millions. That is why his death was one of the most controversial and magnified events of the 1980s, and perhaps one the most notorious cocaine overdoses of all time. Not only did it send shockwaves throughout the country, it left the people in a state of paranoia. The menace of drugs was well-defined and paved way for high-stakes political campaigns. Above all, it fundamentally changed the way Americans prosecuted and incarcerated drug offenders under the eyes of law by sparking the implementation of newer, harsher drug policies.

The national perception on drugs, especially that of cocaine, was influenced by sensationalized media depictions and a bipartisan agreement by Congress on drug-related issues. First and foremost, it is important to understand the history of cocaine in America. In the early 1800s, cocaine was seen as a less harmful substance than alcohol and a suppressor of morphine addiction. [1] Sigmund Freud described in his essay Über Coca that the cocaine was a source of exhilaration and lasting euphoria. [2] By the late 1800s, major U.S. manufacturer, Parke, Davis & Co., of Detroit and New York, was selling cocaine and coca in fifteen forms, such as coca-leaf cigarettes and in solution for hypodermic injection. [3] The widespread availability of cocaine was felt throughout the nation as more and more people were gradually becoming addicted. It was seen as a harmless performance enhancer and gained tacit approval by the public that lasted well into the 1900s. [4] Although many drug policies were later set in place during the mid-1900s such as the Boggs act of 1951 and the Narcotics Control act of 1956, cocaine was still a relatively new drug for casual consumption with limited information on its potential harm. Between 1965 and 1980, there were only nine books written for the general public which stressed the social and biological dangers of drugs. In contrast, there was a 50 to 1 ratio of permissive publications on the subject compared to ones that were not. [5] The one-sided nature of information on drugs was an indicator of the public perception of drug use and how it was culturally relevant. [6] In the 1980s, cocaine was a drug of choice: “If a party host wanted to seem cool and hip, they provided cocaine along with the chips and dip.” [7] There seemed to be an exclusive culture where cocaine became a symbol of status and power. 


Leonard Kevin Bias “Len Bias” was born and raised in the suburbs of Washington D.C and was an exceptional athlete all throughout his time in school. He went to the University of Maryland on a scholarship for basketball and his explosive and exciting play on the court warranted a lot of publicity. He was eventually drafted second overall by the Boston Celtics of the NBA and was touted by some as the next Michael Jordan. [8] As with many sports icons of his time, his athletic ability and prominence in the sports community gave him an essence of invincibility. To the Celtics, he was the next superstar who would lead the team and maintain the franchise’ championship history. To the public, he was an inspiration and hero worthy of emulation. As a result, his cocaine-induced death in June of 1986 gave the public a very defined and tangible concern. The general atmosphere of the 1980s itself was infused with many anti-drug sentiments stemming mainly from Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs. [9] The death of Len Bias, however, increased these sentiments significantly. People sensed that “once considered glamorous and safe, cocaine was now a menace. The newsweeklies, movies, TV commercials, [and] books … all send the same message: Cocaine can kill.”[10] And if cocaine can kill someone as young, robust, and untouchable as Len Bias, what did it mean for the general population? In order to satisfy the people’s newfound hatred towards drugs, media outlets jumped on the occasion. Time named cocaine the “Issue of the Year” in 1986 and Newsweek declared it to be the biggest news since Vietnam/Watergate. [11] Bias himself became a one-man deterrent on drugs.

Aside from the media angle, the government saw Len Bias’ death as a way to re-examine drug policies and a means of political maneuvering. Playing right into the hands of the media, certain politicians would use sensationalized campaign messages such as the “criminal minority/immigrant” stereotype, to push personal agendas and to gain self-promotion. [12] A hardline take on drugs was consistent with the common attitude at the time and was almost a requirement for politicians to get elected, so much so that the expediency to exploit moral and social panics dominated the political atmosphere over sound reasoning and factual evidence. According to a budget allocations report, “federal anti-drug expenditures grew from $129.5 million in 1970 to nearly $4 billion in 1987.” [13] Furthermore, the tough stance on drugs, was, for the most part, bipartisan. In the wake of his death, Republicans used the public outcry to add amendments they felt Democrats would resist. However, many Democrats voted for them, because they wanted to appear tough on drugs before the election. As a result, the Republicans re-established mandatory minimum sentences that had previously been repealed in 1970 to reinforce a “tough on drugs” position that the Democrats would eventually agree on. [14] The fact that both chambers of congress had a democratic majority was surprising considering Democrats tended to have less radical views on drug policy. All anti-drug bills reported by the many House committees were bundled together into a single Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and introduced after Labor Day. [15]


The Anti-Drug Abuse act of 1986 institutionalized a system of punishment that was based more on eliminating the problem than fixing it. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, also known as the Len Bias law, established mandatory minimum sentences for all drug offenders. [16] The most immediate impact of the act was the skyrocketing incarceration rates. It was vital to the public and the image of the government that something had to be done, which meant increased arresting powers and public surveillance. From 1986 to 1998, the number of drug cases in federal prisons increased 450 percent. [17] It also meant that many of the arrested drug offenders were low-level, first-time users, many of whom have never had a criminal record in the past. In practice, someone who has never touched drugs or engaged in any criminal activity prior could serve up to 10 to 20 years in prison as a first-time offender. The sudden influx of prisoners also meant overcrowding in prisons and correctional institutes. One example is the state of California, which has built a total of 20 prisons from 1984 to 1999 compared to the total of 12 built in the 130 years before. [18] By targeting low-level instead of high-level offenders, the government essentially prosecutes as many people as possible to show short term results rather than attacking the heart of the issue. And contrary to popular belief, it is not the increase of crime that justified the high incarceration rates but the change in policy, which explains why the increase in incarceration was so sudden and extreme.

On top of the increased mandatory minimums, the Anti-Drug Abuse act also created a 100 to 1 mandatory minimums ratio between powder and crack cocaine. This means that someone caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine would be sentenced the same as someone caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine. It is important to define the biological and social differences of powder and crack cocaine. Powder cocaine is a fine white powder that is typically inhaled or injected, whereas crack cocaine is a smokable form of cocaine and made by combining baking soda and water. [19] Crack cocaine was a popular drug among both white and black users, however, it was perceived to be more concentrated in poorer inner cities with large black populations. At this time, there were trends of rising crack usage in inner cities and violence surrounding the trade of it, which fed largely into the stigma of the drug. [20] But at the same time, much of this perception can be attributed to the racialized media portrayal in the 1980s. For example, it is widely believed that Len Bias died of a crack overdose even though it was later confirmed in his autopsy that he actually digested powder cocaine instead of crack. [21] It didn’t matter that he grew up with two well-educated parents in a suburban home, his blackness fit the crack narrative. The corrected information, however, did not warrant front-page news coverage, or a reassessment of the subsequent federal sentencing policy. The fact was that there was already an inherent bias against black communities when it came to drugs. The various media sources reinforced into the minds of all the people, all the legislators, the already prevalent racial stereotypes of black people as having an inferior and criminal subculture. 

The racial disparity in incarceration was apparent as a direct result of the 100 to 1 crack to powder ratio. In 2007, African Americans accounted for only 18 percent of crack cocaine users in the US but 83 percent of those receiving federal sentences for crack cocaine offense. [22] In addition, one of four defendants of powder-related crimes is white,  whereas for crack cocaine, there were 10 black federal defendants for every one white federal defendant. [23] This black versus white disparity is an indicator of systemic bias that institutionalizes, harbors, and promotes racism. One example is how racial profiling has been a vital part of law enforcement and DEA practices. Profiles for drug-traffickers included clues such as driving patterns, certain behavioral cues, as well race, gender, and age indicators. [24] Although seemingly neutral indicators, many of these profiling methods generalized potential drug-traffickers and perpetuated a notion of an ethnically homogenous enemy. Furthermore, police have also disproportionately enhanced policing and arresting in disadvantaged neighborhoods as it was the quickest and surest way to show progress. [25] Low-class black citizens were forced to live under conditions of constant scrutiny of the police and were subjectively more likely to be arrested. And this was justified based on the law. This is what makes the 100 to 1 crack to powder ratio so controversial and objectionable—it is so inherently targeted towards a black population that it ushers mass incarceration for a specific race of people instead of a specific group of bona fide drug offenders.


Ultimately, the cumulative implications stemming from Len Bias’ death led to many negative long-term effects on black citizens in inner cities. A major consequence is the delegitimization of the U.S justice system. The democracy of a nation rests heavily on its claim to fairness under the eyes of the law. Yet, inequalities are made more indirect, covert, and implicit than in the past. [26] Consequently there has been a gradual loss of trust and confidence in the government among African Americans. The disproportionate arresting, increased policing and other aforementioned factors, have caused black people to develop a very negative view of law enforcement and a habit of treating them with an increased sense of hostility, making them less likely to cooperate and more reluctant to report crimes. [27] Most of these feelings are still very prevalent today and are manifested through events such as police brutality. These cases have become increasingly publicized and are fueling many modern day tensions on race and policy, especially in the last decade. The mass incarceration of blacks is also leading to mass disenfranchisement of a specific demographic. According to the Fourteenth Amendment, citizens who are convicted of a crime are not allowed to vote. Nearly 2 million black citizens are affected by felon disenfranchisement laws in the United States. Such a large and distinctive voting group being left out of voting entirely can significantly affect the outcome of elections and which major party has control of congress. [28] Thus, it would make it harder to bring about social change as the voices of a large part of the population are being stifled and ignored. 

This high number is also leading to social disadvantages in many aspects of life. In terms of the individual, being sent to prison completely railroads all chances of a full education and completely ruins a person’s chances of getting stable employment. Another study in 2003 found that although low-skill blacks can generally expect to face discrimination in seeking a job, blacks with a criminal record had vanishingly small prospects of an effective job search. Only 5 percent of blacks with a criminal record who applied for a job received a callback, compared to the already low likelihood of receiving a callback for blacks without a criminal record who were called back about 14 percent of the time. [29] The low callback rate suggests an association of insubordination and low-efficiency with blacks in the workforce as well as a general sense of distrust. They are also less prepared for employment as the prison sentences have railroaded them from getting a full education. [30] These social issues are also leading moral effects that reach beyond the mere fact of imprisonment. Experience with incarceration is becoming part of the normal life trajectory for members of certain black communities in the past few decades. Another study in 2004 showed that, “among the age cohort of thirty to thirty-four in 1999, 60 percent of black men without a high school diploma had been incarcerated at some point in their lives, which is more than three times the rate of 17 percent in 1979”. [31] It has become culturally accepted for black men to be arrested like it is some kind of rite of passage and is developing in the minds of young, impressionable black teens and young adults, a us versus them mentality. A person with a clean record might seem like a law enforcement sympathizer and are criticized for not standing up for their own race. From the perspective on non-blacks, this disengagement reinforces certain negative social norms. They have a higher tendency to stigmatize African Americans as criminals, deprive them of social supports, and treat their members as non-citizens. [32]

 The United States is supposedly a country of liberty, justice, and freedom, where one can pursue a better future for themselves and the people around them. It is purported to be a country that values the moral dignity and self-worth of the individual and does whatever it takes to protect their inalienable rights. The day of Len Bias’ death left a detrimental mark on the nation. It was one factor that fragmented and damaged the lives of millions of black Americans and the isolated the communities they live in, triggered and amplified a social unrest between the government and its citizens, and delegitimized the very idea of fairness that America was founded on. The reverberating impact of Len Bias’ death can still be felt today. 



[1] Musto, David F. “America’s First Cocaine Epidemic.” The Wilson Quarterly 13, no. 3 (Summer 1983): 1-7.

[2] Freud, Sigmund. “Uber Coca” [About Cocaine]. Centralblatt für die ges 2:289-314. 

[3] Musto,  “America’s First,” 60.

[4] Musto,  “America’s First,” 61.

[5] Nahas, Gabriel G. Cocaine: The Great White Plague. Middlebury, VT, 1989.

[6] Sirin, Cigdem V. “From Nixon’s War on Drugs to Obama’s Drug Policies Today: Presidential Progress in Addressing Racial Injustices and Disparities.” Race, Gender & Class 18, no. 3/4 (2011): 82-99

[7] Ungrady, Dave. Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011. Digital file.

[8] Without Bias. Directed by Kirk Fraser. ESPN, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2017. 

[9] Nahas. “The Great,” 131

[10] Musto, “America’s First,” 63 

[11] Ungrady, “Born Ready,” 173 

[12] Sirin, “From Nixon’s,” 94

[13] Marshall, Eliot. “Flying Blind in the War on Drugs.” Science, n.s., 240, no.3859: 1605-07. 

[14] Ungrady, “Born Ready,” 163

[15] Sirin, “From Nixon’s,” 95

[16] Narcotics Penalties and Enforcement Act of 1986, S. 5484, 99th Cong. (1985). Accessed May 8, 2017. 

[17] Ungrady, “Born Ready,” 154

[18] Gray, James P. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We can Do About It. Philadelphia, U.S.A: Temple University Press, 2001. 

[19] Drug Policy Alliance. “Cocaine and Crack Facts.” Drug Policy Alliance. Accessed May 8, 2017. 

[20] Bobo, Lawrence D., and Victor Thompson. “Unfair by Design: The War on Drugs, Race, and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Justice System.” Social Research 73, no. 2: 1-29.

[21] Bergman, Carol A. “The Politics of Federal Sentencing on Cocaine.” Federal Sentencing Reporter 10, no. 4 (January/February 1998): 196-99.

[22] Ungrady, “Born Ready,” 164

[23] Ungrady, “Born Ready,” 164

[24] Sirin, “From Nixon’s,” 94

[25] Chin, Gabriel J. “Race, the War on Drugs, and the Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction.” Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice 6 (2002): 255-78.

[26] Bobo and Thompson, “Unfair by Design,” 454

[27] Sirin, “From Nixon’s,” 87 

[28] Bobo and Thompson, “Unfair by Design,” 454

[29] Bobo and Thompson. “Unfair by Design,” 454

[30] Roberts, Dorothy E. “The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American Communities.” Stanford Law Review 56:1272-304. Accessed May 11, 2017. 

[31] Bobo and Thompson. “Unfair by Design,” 453

[32] Roberts. “The Social,” 1295

– Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988, H.R. 5210, 100th Cong. (1988). Accessed May 11, 


– Bergman, Carol A. “The Politics of Federal Sentencing on Cocaine.” Federal 

     Sentencing Reporter 10, no. 4 (January/February 1998): 196-99. 

– Bobo, Lawrence D., and Victor Thompson. “Unfair by Design: The War on Drugs, 

     Race, and the Legitimacy of the Criminal Justice System.” Social Research 

     73, no. 2: 1-29.

– Carstairs, Catherine. “The Most Dangerous Drug: Images of African Americans and 

     Cocaine Use in the Progressive Era.” Left History 7, no. 1: 46-61. 

– Chin, Gabriel J. “Race, the War on Drugs, and the Collateral Consequences of 

     Criminal Conviction.” Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice 6 (2002): 


– Drug Policy Alliance. “Cocaine and Crack Facts.” Drug Policy Alliance. Accessed 

     May 8, 2017. 

– Easley, Jonathan. “The day the drug war really started.” Salon. Last modified 

     June 19, 2011. Accessed May 17, 2017. 


– Freud, Sigmund. “Uber Coca” [About Cocaine]. Centralblatt für die ges 2:289-314. 

     Accessed May 7, 2017. 

– Gray, James P. Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We can Do About It. 

     Philadelphia, U.S.A: Temple University Press, 2001. 

– Marshall, Eliot. “Flying Blind in the War on Drugs.” Science, n.s., 240, no. 

     3859: 1605-07. 

     This journal talks about the role of the government with the war on drugs. 

– Musto, David F. “America’s First Cocaine Epidemic.” The Wilson Quarterly 13, no. 

     3 (Summer 1983): 1-7. 

– Nahas, Gabriel G. Cocaine: The Great White Plague. Middleburry, VT, 1989. 

– Narcotics Penalties and Enforcement Act of 1986, S. 5484, 99th Cong. (1985). 

     Accessed May 8, 2017. 


– Roberts, Dorothy E. “The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African 

     American Communities.” Stanford Law Review 56:1272-304. Accessed May 11, 



– Rogers, Everett M. “Diffusion of Drug Abuse Prevention Programs: Spontaneous 

     Diffusion, Agenda Setting, and Reinvention.” National Institute on Drug 

     Abuse Research, Monograph ser., 96-105. 


– Schuppe, Jon. “30 Years after Basketball Star Len Bias’ Death, Its Drug War 

     Impact Endures.” NBC News. Last modified June 19, 2016. Accessed May 17, 



– Sirin, Cigdem V. “From Nixon’s War on Drugs to Obama’s Drug Policies Today: 

     Presidential Progress in Addressing Racial Injustices and Disparities.” 

     Race, Gender & Class 18, no. 3/4 (2011): 82-99. 


– Ungrady, Dave. Born Ready: The Mixed Legacy of Len Bias. CreateSpace Independent 

     Publishing Platform, 2011. Digital file. 

Weinreb, Michael. “The Day Innocence Died.” ESPN. Accessed May 17, 2017. 

– Without Bias. Directed by Kirk Fraser. ESPN, 2009. Accessed April 27, 2017. 


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