More Dispatches from Buffalo: Popular Culture and the Drug Wars

Editors’ Note: This is the third and final of Michael Durfee’s reports from the recent ADHS conference.  We’re grateful to him for his thoughtful blog posts–hopefully this won’t be the last Points readers hear from Michael.  Read his first two conference dispatches here and here.

Popular Culture and the Drug Wars

On Sunday, a group of enterprising graduate students presented portions of their dissertation’s in progress to those interested in the often overlapping worlds of popular culture and the war on drugs.  Robert Beach adjusted our gaze to the subculture of comic books and superhero’s, chronicling the work of Earl Albert Rowell, a relatively obscure San Francisco based writer and anti-drug lecturer.  Rowell created a superhero named David Dare, cast as a globe-trotting anti-narcotics crusader.  In one tale, Dare is on the trail of morphine peddlers.  In another, Dare finds himself at the locus of all evil and depravity—the marijuana den.  Most interesting however, proved Beach’s assessment of the emergence of the comic book superhero.  For Beach, the superhero came to light amidst a host of institutional crisis addressed in superhero crusades: Police officers, for example, continuously fought the stigma of corruption; doctors often fought against their association with quacks and other apocryphal practitioners. Most notably, the federal government‘s enforcers, embodied in the Prohibition agents of the era, seemed to highlight the inability of national governments to legislate recreational activities.  All told, superhero’s like David Dare served as vehicles to criticize institutional failure and correct the complicated problems mortal human beings simply could not manage themselves.
Following Beach’s treatment of David Dare, I presented on the often overlooked role of Len Bias in the crack panic of 1986.  After being drafted as the number two pick in the 1986 NBA draft, Bias overdosed on cocaine after celebrating with teammates and friends.  Most treatment—even today—laments the tragic loss of a supreme athletic talent, painting Bias as a martyr in the war on drugs.  His legacy, for many, has been to serve as a cautionary tale.  The Bias overdose brought forth an important lesson—drug use, even once, kills.  In this respect it seems rational to argue that in death, Bias actually saved lives by dissuading young kids from using drugs.  This—as I argue—is a grave mistake.
Contrary to popular reports, Bias was not a first time drug user.  In fact, more than one teammate admitted before a grand jury that Bias himself had introduced them to cocaine.  This, however, never made the headlines.  Instead popular media outlets portrayed Bias as a wholesome, devoutly religious, hard-working individual victimized by drugs.  If drugs could claim Bias at the height of his power, they could kill anyone, ruin any family, and destroy any community.  In this respect, the Bias overdose came to be used in service of a lie.  Quickly, his death propelled the narrative which would consume the summer and fall of 1986:  Cocaine’s evil cousin had made quick work of chocolate cities and now threatened the sanctity and safety of vanilla suburbs.
As crack came to be seen as the number one problem facing the nation, citizens and representatives of cities and suburbs alike called for action resulting in the reactionary legislation of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.  Establishing the now notorious minimum sentencing guidelines for cocaine and crack, the legislation devastated inner-cities, forever changing the nature of the prison industrial complex in addition to family and community life in areas hit hardest by the renewed emphasis on “law and order” politics in the 1980s.  Undoubtedly, the three horsemen of crack, AIDS, and the war on drugs proved devastating to poor, urban communities.  Inner-cities who limped into the 1980s hobbled by disinvestment were ultimately “lucky” to crawl out of the decade alive.
Dialing back the clock, Jessica Neptune discussed what might be seen as a logical precursor to the draconian minimum sentencing guidelines established by the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: the Rockefeller Laws of the 1970s.  Contrived as a response to the perceived excesses of liberalism under the Great Society, Rockefeller decided the only correct counter to the growing prospects of a disease model of addiction would be virulent enforcement.  Concerned that upstate residents might find the sentencing prescriptions of the Rockefeller Laws too harsh, Rocky enlisted the help of African-American Harlem leaders and residents.  Coming out in support of Rockefeller’s proposed legislation, Harlem leaders and residents demonstrated black support, pushing the message that Rockefeller Laws were meant to save the ghetto—not to save whites from the ghetto. Neptune cleverly foreshadowed the increased focus upon enforcement by noting that Rockefeller’s legislation had many important admirers—namely Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon—both of whom would shape the war on drugs in their own right.  However, as we might suspect, Rockefeller was not without his critics.  Buffalo, NY Democrat Arthur O. Eve rightly assailed the 1973 legislation as “ghetto genocide”.  Cheers to Arthur, both a Buffalonian and a man who saw the forest through the trees.