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Monday, May 4, 2015

Pursuing Opiate Killers -- The Len Bias Law

Even in the face of those who call arresting and incarcerating legions of drug offenders acts of "absurdity" in effectively fighting opiate abuse, the enforcement and legal communities have a much-debated weapon that can be used against major dealers and suppliers of heroin.

The so-called "Len Bias Law," was named for the University of Maryland Basketball Star who died of a cocaine overdose in 1986, just two days after he was drafted by the Boston Celtics. Bias’s death prompted Congress to pass a law later in 1986 that holds suppliers of a drug responsible when a user dies.

The impact of the passing of Len Bias was monumental -- it was an earthquake that awoke the nation to the veracity of great numbers of drug deaths and a stimulus to a united movement to stop spiraling drug abuse.

Robert DuPont, M.D., the president of the American Council of Drug Education when Bias died and  the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse from 1973 to 1978, is now the president of the Institute for Behavior and Health Incorporated, which promotes strategies to reduce the demand for illegal drugs. He claims the death of Bias was the most important date related to drug abuse in the United States since the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in June 1935. He says ...

“It changed the basis on which everyone was thinking about drug abuse. It brought it home to everybody. Len Bias was an American prince, and he was at the height of his fame. The way drugs had been thought about up to then was it had to do with disadvantaged, poor people who didn’t have good families or an education. Bias was the antithesis of that. He came from a wonderful family, had tremendous support. It surely didn’t have to do with him being depressed, being poor, uneducated, all those stereotypes.”

But for the first 15-20 years, police and prosecutors rarely used the Len Bias Law. Then, the opiate epidemic exploded, and places like Portland, Oregon began to use it effectively.

The law gives federal agents incentive to trace the chain of heroin use from the drug's source. Journalist and author of Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, Sam Quinones explains ...

"A so-called Len Bias case is based in federal law. Under that law, a person who supplies drugs that cause a fatal overdose may be charged with a conspiracy that results in death -- a charge that carries a twenty-year prison sentence. Cops have to prove the person died from the suspects drugs; a chain of custody has to be established. But if they can do that, they have a powerful prosecutorial tool and one that was getting a closer look in many parts of the country as the opiate epidemic and fatal drug overdoses spread across the nation....

"The benefit prosecutors see in Len Bias is that it allows investigators to work up a chain of drug distribution. To save himself from a Len Bias prosecution, a dealer needs to flip, and quickly, burning the dealer one link above him in the chain, hoping for leniency at sentencing time. The last man detectives can trace the drugs to faces the twenty years if convicted -- a fateful game of musical chairs."

(Sam Quinones. Dreamland. 278-279. Bloomsbury Press. pp.  2015)

In the best case scenario, federal, state, and local government agencies cooperate completely to effect Len Bias charges. Quinones says the state medical examiner has to be willing to perform an autopsy; the local DA has to give up the case if is appears the feds have more leverage. And, most importantly, investigators have to share information.

Of course, Portland defense attorneys began to cry "Foul!" at such aggressive tactics. They said, "Even if you are not in the actual chain of distribution that led to an overdose, Oregon state and federal prosecutors often use the threat of a Len Bias prosecution to frighten people into cooperating in the prosecution of others. They often do this very quickly and pressure people to sign up before they have had a chance to speak in confidence to their own attorney."

(Kohlmetz, Steen & Hanrahan, P.C. "Portland Lawyer for
Drug-Related Deaths and Injuries." 2015)

Legal challenges aside, as of June 26, 2013, Oregon has had 40 Len Bias prosecutions, the most in the nation. Now Oregon's Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen Bickers regularly trains other state and federal prosecutors.

The prosecutions, she said, reach past the first- and second-tier dealers to "those traffickers who believe they remain Teflon at the top of the organization." Heroin traffickers in particular, she said, are suddenly finding "an alarming number of their own people" willing to talk.

Eric Sterling, former counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that handled the Len Bias laws, said the tough sentence gives prosecutors leverage against big drug organizations.

(Les Zaitz. "Drug cartels in Oregon: 'Len Bias' strategy a potent tool for law enforcement.
 The Oregonian. OregonLive. June 26, 2013) 

So, How About Ohio and "Len Bias"?

I cannot find online evidence of use of the Len Bias Law in Ohio. What I can find here, in my own community, is plenty of interest in further investigation into the overdose deaths we have suffered. People speculate that the stigma associated with opiate deaths keeps authorities from conducting deeper prosecutions. Perhaps, they should use Len Bias when applicable and make taking out kingpins a priority. Talk to even a single parent who has lost a child in the drug epidemic and you will hear frustration about the lack of the look into a possible murder.
I think enforcing legislation that demands stiff sentences for supplying and dealing opiates like heroin is needed, particularly in overdose death cases. Many who argue our jails and prisons are already full of drug criminals disagree, but I believe we still must use incarceration the worst offenders to fight "accidental deaths" that are not really "accidents."

I see this as a separate issue from using rehab and drug courts to help minimal offenders get clean. In fact, I strongly believe the right kind of sustained rehabilitation is cheaper than locking users up and ignoring their disease. Taxpayers should research the actual savings to their own pocketbooks.

There must be a simple, stern warning issued to all of those who are involved in the illegal opiate market. I think only when everyone knows the huge risks -- addiction, appropriate incarceration, and death -- will this casual view of using opiates stop. The warning?

"If you begin to consume illegally opiate substances, you will be considered a criminal, a public enemy, and face all the consequences of your actions, including damage incurred to yourself and damage you inflict upon all others."

The definition of a criminal is "an individual who has been found guilty of the commission of conduct that causes social harm and that is punishable by law." It's time we speak the truth to our youth and stop coddling them with irresponsible favors, forgetting and forgiving all their misdeeds, and, thus, enabling them to take risk after risk. Tough love and strict rules are tools that a fifteen-year-old brain can comprehend. And, in many cases today, the alternatives are either being a criminal or being a corpse.
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