When University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died in his dorm room 20 years ago this week, then U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill decided that “Congress would produce legislation so tough, so broad-reaching, no Democrat could ever be accused of being soft on drugs again,” says the University of Maryland Diamondback. “The speaker had decided to make an anti-drug initiative the summer's project,” said Eric Sterling, then a staff member of the House subcommittee on crime. The speaker wanted a bill in 30 days.
“I had never been a part of such an accelerated legislative effort,” recalls Sterling, who now runs the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, based in Silver Spring, Md. “They wanted to crack down on traffickers, But we ended up using very small quantities as the triggers” for strong sentencing guidelines in felony drug cases. In Sterling’s view, “As a result of the Len Bias mandatory minimums, the federal government has misfocused on low level street-level dealers and stopped focusing on high level traffickers.” The White House drug czar’s office declined to comment.