Here’s a rule in life: When things become political, they become
messed up. Here’s another rule: When things become fodder for media,
they get even worse.

As soon as a problem enters the political field for a solution, it is
subject to the petty whims, egos and pressures for which politics is
best known. Worse still, as soon as it hits the press, it is subject to
the most absurd sorts of story-hyping exaggeration imaginable — terror
and doom, after all, are the best things to sell papers. This is doubly
true when the terror and doom involve drugs.

The little-remembered case of basketball player Len Bias and House
Speaker Tip O’Neill is a perfect example. A star player, drafted from
the University of Maryland in 1986 to shoot hoops with the Boston
Celtics, Bias was celebrating his good fortune with friends on June 18
that year. Late into a night of partying, Bias began to feel ill and
laid down to get some rest — as it turned out, a lot more rest than he
anticipated. The medical examiner chalked up Bias’ death to the effects
of cocaine.

Deemed a straight shooter and morally upstanding fellow, news of
Bias’ passing sparked an uproar in Boston — especially when his death
was tied to not just the pass? drug of recreational choice, cocaine, but
to what was then the newest form of the drug: crack.

While the word “crack” doesn’t ignite the same bonfire of fear in the
hearts and minds of America that it once did, the new crystalline and
smokeable form of cocaine — much like freebase — was hot fodder for
news at the time.

In her May 11, 1999, feature on the history of America’s
crack “epidemic,” Maia Szalavitz chronicles just how far the media went
in its coverage of the drug’s effects, inflating the danger of the
cocaine derivative to King Kong proportions. In 1986, the same year
Bias died, Time magazine called crack addiction the “issue of the year,”
while Newsweek dubbed it the “most addictive drug known to man.” U.S.
News and World Report actually deemed crack’s effect to be similar to
that of the medieval plagues and called it “the number one problem we
face.” Just in the year between October 1988 and October 1989, the
Washington Post published over 1,500 stories related to crack cocaine,
and President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy proffered the notion
that the drug was killing “a whole generation of children.”

With word of one-toke addiction and jarring stories like Bias’ death
set alongside wild and doom-chanting press coverage, everybody was
fearful of the new scourge.

Everybody but Tip O’Neill, that is.

Where the average Joe saw little but trouble, Speaker of the House
O’Neill, the infamous Democrat representing Boston, saw opportunity.

The Democrats had long been seen as velvety soft when it came to drug
policy, and O’Neill saw Bias’ death as a tool to shake that perception.
Reagan, you’ll remember, ate the Democrats for lunch in 1984, and, as
told in Dan Baum’s 1997 book, “Smoke and Mirrors,” O’Neill considered
new Democrat-sponsored anti-drug legislation as a possible key to
stemming the tide of the Reagan Revolution.

“Immediately upon returning from the July 4 (1986) recess,” recounts
Baum, “Tip O’Neill called an emergency meeting of the crime-related
committee chairmen. Write some g–damned legislation, he thundered.
All anybody up in Boston is talking about is Len Bias. The papers are
screaming for blood. … 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.”

Wishful thinking, it turned out. In the end, Reagan still held title
for heavyweight drug warrior and O’Neill’s Democrats had to wait another
six years till Bill Clinton in 1992 could seize the presidency. Before
all was over, however, O’Neill managed to pass, without holding
congressional hearings, the most draconian drug-control measures in
American history and slated a whopping $4 billion to fill the national
drug-war coffers.

As evidenced by his earnest chat with the committee chairmen, O’Neill
did not drum up the anti-drug measures for the sake of workable policy
or the interest of public health — but rather to win in a political
game of one-upmanship with Reagan and the Republicans. Unfortunately
for O’Neill, the Gipper-lead GOP managed to emerge from the battle
looking still more hard-nosed on dope than the Dems. Politically, Tip
shot snake eyes, but not before adding new teeth to the jaws of
government — sharp incisors to take a bite out of drug crime.

Stoked by media hype, O’Neill took up the anti-drug banner for the
purpose of garnering voter support, and drug policy became a pawn in a
political game, moved and directed to suit temporary political ends —
not actually deal with drugs.

Not that this is anything new.

In the late 1800s, cocaine was viewed as a wonder drug. After
chomping on the occasional coca leaf, Freud called it a “magical
substance.” He even thought of using it to wean opium addicts from
their habit. Cocaine could be found lacing elixirs, cordials, even
cigarettes, and was in wide use throughout American society. Parke,
Davis and Co. marketed cocaine in 15 different forms — many of which
were sold solely for recreational purposes.

“Cocaine: The First Epidemic,” an entry in the Time-Life book,
“Mysteries of the Human Body,” contains many facts about dope your
high-school history teachers probably failed to bring to your
attention. A wine-and-cocaine beverage from France, for instance, a
coca liqueur, was said to have been enjoyed by inventor Thomas Edison, adored by
Pope Leo XIII, and apparently possessed, according to those who consumed
it, the ability to fortify and refresh the body and brain and restore
health and vitality.

Starting with Coca-Cola, soda companies began manufacturing beverages
containing cocaine. Besides Coke, Some of the original cocaine drinks
were “Nerv-Ola,” “Wise-Ola” and the aptly named “Dope.”

Cocaine, it was thought, could cure anything: headaches, asthma,
indigestion, the blues. One such medicine marketed by Lloyd
Manufacturing Co. was dubbed, “Cocaine Toothache Drops” and boasted an
“Instantaneous Cure!” Price: 15 cents. The ad — a copy of which I
keep at my desk — would drive present-day anti-Joe Camel types into
frothy-mouthed fits of apoplexy. Featuring two young children building
a toy house with miniature logs, the ad notes that the wonder medication
is “for sale by all druggists.” What? Without a prescription.
Over-the-counter cocaine. For younkers to buy! ‘Fraid so.

But, ever-striving for an attention-grabbing headline, by 1886,
newspapers began circulating stories harping on cocaine’s
addictiveness. Like the racist tinge to the mid-1980s crack fears,
blacks who used the drug were soon labeled “cocaine fiends” and worry
soon spread in the South that, doped out of their gourds on cocaine,
“cocainized Negroes” would run rampant through the countryside, harming
the innocent and possibly looting chicken coops.

In 1914 — despite no constitutional provision for such action —
Congress stepped in with the Harrison Act and brought the sale and
distribution of cocaine under federal control.

As it happens, the 19th century cocaine “epidemic” was just like the
crack “epidemic” in that it was basically a non-problem until the
politicians and media got a hold of it. Sociologist Craig Reinarman,
author of “Crack in America,” as cited in Szalavitz’s story,
pins blame for the crack scare on the press. “At a minimum,” he says,
“the media accelerated its spread.”

“There is no major corporation which could have afforded the coverage
and exposure that crack got for free,” says Reinarman. So, why did the
press pump crack mania with the vigor it did? Simple: It sold papers
and boosted ratings. One CBS News feature on crack garnered the best
ratings of any news show for the previous half-decade.

Further, the resultant public fear — good old-fashioned moral panic
in Reinarman’s judgment — played directly into the hands of politicians
looking for issues on which to build their respective crime-fighting
legacies. “When it came to crack,” writes Szalavitz, “the media
escalated the panic and propelled a political arms race, in which
Democrats and Republicans fought to outdo each other as anti-drug

Just like most arms races, the drug war has continued with each side
forever upping the ante. Nixon was tough, but O’Neill and Reagan were
tougher, George Bush tougher still, and, despite that non-inhalant
marijuana record, Bill Clinton’s administration has tightened the
thumbscrews even more.

So, now, with a new administration on the horizon and the present
anti-drug course being an obvious failure, the question is how tough
does it have to get before we say “enough”?

Related items:

“One toke over the line, sweet Jesus?”
What does the Bible say Christians should think about drugs? This column attempts an answer — and it isn’t death-by-stoning.

“Witch way on drugs?”
The follow-up column to “One toke over the line, sweet Jesus?” exploring the drug-witchcraft connection.

“Yakkity yak, don’t talk smack”
A column about the drug war’s recent attacks on free speech.

“The problem with drug raids”
A piece about sacking the Bill of Rights to pursue drug offenders.

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