Irrational Intolerance

On October 27, 1986 Ronald Reagan signed Public Law 99-570 with the overwhelming bipartisan support of the 99th Congress.  Spurred by the June death of basketball star Len Bias, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 hurried its way into federal law nearly as fast as crack emerged onto the national scene.  In prepared remarks that afternoon, the President gushed over his “great pleasure” in signing legislation intended to combat the “evil of drugs” before a group of Cabinet members, Administration officials, members of Congress, and private citizens in the East Room of the White House.  “The magnitude of today’s drug problem,” Reagan suggested, “can be traced to past unwillingness to recognize and confront this problem.”  In short, Reagan and other drug crusaders believed the nation to be all too tolerant of drugs, their users, and purveyors.

The Only Person in the United States Speaking out Against Crack.

Thankfully, Reagan reminded his audience, he and Congress held “the vaccine that’s going to end the epidemic.”  That is, “tough laws” and a “dramatic change in public attitude.”  Draconian mandatory minimums effectively satisfied the first element to this equation.  To fully succeed though, government would need the help of the American people.  “We must be intolerant of drugs,” implored Reagan, “I ask each American to be strong in your intolerance of illegal drug use.”  Positioning his wife Nancy as a crusading pioneer, Reagan took a moment to note the popular success of her “Just Say No” campaign, crediting her sole work for turning “the fight against drug abuse into a national crusade.”  Evidently, the President and his wife remained unaware to the tireless work of grassroots community organizations whom had agitated for reform since early 1985 such as the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.  Perhaps this is because both the President and the First Lady denied NWBCCC requests to visit with its members, to see the crack problem at its epicenter a year prior.

Cloaked in New Right rhetoric of family values and firm law and order, Reagan announced the legislation as a “victory for safer neighborhoods, a victory for the protection of the American family.”  United together, Americans would now see to it that, “there’s no sanctuary for the drug criminals,” those “pilfering human dignity and pandering despair.”  Despite loading the bill with excessive fines and mandatory minimums for drug offenders, Reagan quipped: “This legislation is not intended as a means of filling our jails with drug users.”

A quick evaluation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 makes the previous statement extremely difficult to reconcile.  500 grams of cocaine, 5 grams of crack, or 100 kg of pot triggered a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence.  Moreover, 5,000 grams of cocaine, 50 grams of crack, or 1,000 kg of pot triggered a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence.  To make matters worse sentences doubled in cases where offenders had a prior felony conviction, a third strike earning a life sentence.  Sentences also doubled for those selling to, or using minors to sell illicit drugs.  Perhaps most devastating, no offenders would be eligible for parole. 

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