Colored: Crack Cocaine, the War on Drugs, and the Making of Post-Civil Rights America

A few months ago I was interviewed by Prasanna Rajasekaran, a student at Northeastern University and a scholar of the war on drugs. Prasanna was really awesome to talk to – inspired by my article on the Atlantic from 2012, “How President Nixon Tied Addiction to Crime,” we spoke at length about how crack prompted a new wave of arrests, and the impact that had on marijuana activism.

You can check out their website here for future episodes, and the first one is right here, on SoundCloud:

Thanks again, Prasanna! Your project is awesome – keep it up!

The 30th Anniversary of the Death of Len Bias

It’s hard to believe, but this Sunday, June 19, will mark the 30th anniversary of Len Bias’s death. A few weeks ago I was contacted by Thomas Bonanno, editor of the website Celtics Live, to see if he could use segments of the post I wrote last September about visiting Bias’s grave in Suitland, Maryland, in a thirty-day series leading up to the anniversary of his death. Of course I said yes.

I really like what Bonanno did, comparing my thoughts on Bias’s grave to the more flashy and extravagant tombs of other Celtics players who have passed. You can check it out here.

And, as a brief update about the book, I’m still writing! My editor at Basic has already reviewed the first ten chapters and liked them. Now I’m finishing up the second half of the manuscript. I will (I WILL) meet my August 15 deadline, even as I get deeper in to my third trimester and the little boy inside of me decides to do backflips every afternoon while I work. A fall 2017 publication date is in the works.

I’m a footnote in history, or of history, or about history

Sometimes it’s fun to compile all the places I see my name pop up, like in footnotes or quotations. It’s a nice way to procrastinate from writing another chapter of the book manuscript.

I’m probably proudest of being a footnote on Wikipedia. The series of articles I wrote for Points in 2012, that were then published on the Atlantic, remain a neverending source of footnote amusement. For example, I’m footnote #23 in Wikipedia’s article on “Drug User,” and I’m footnote #10 in “War on Drugs.”

I also noticed that my review in the journal American Studies was quoted on the Amazon page for Suzanna Reiss’s (excellent) book We Sell DrugsAnd I was super psyched to see myself cited twice in Adam Rathge’s great article “Pondering Pot,” which was published in the OAH magazine The American Historian. 

I think that’s all for now, but being cited like this gives me a real sense of happiness, of feeling like I’ve maybe actually contributed something to the wider world of literature and scholarship on les drogues. Naturally, since Wikipedia changes a million times a day, I’m sure I’ll be removed immediately for noticing. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted.

Cognitive dissonance, or visiting Len Bias’s grave

len BiasI had always said that if I ever sold my book, I wanted to do two things: use the advance (assuming I received one) to take my friends mini golfing at Hains Point, and visit the grave of Len Bias in Suitland, Md.

Well, we’re all going golfing in October, and I visited Bias’s grave last Sunday, August 30.

Len Bias, the 6’7″ star of the University of Maryland’s basketball team and first-round pick of the Boston Celtics, is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, just over the border from the District of Columbia. The cemetery is a large and sprawling place, green and verdant if we got any rain, but dry and brown from the end of summer drought that we’ve experienced for the past six weeks. The sun was so relentlessly bright that the grave – which is just small bronze plaque – was almost too hot to touch. Nearby, where his brother is buried alongside countless other grandpas and aunts, there were decaying stuffed animals and sunbleached plastic flowers. It looked like no one had been there in weeks.

Len Bias Grave Map

Map of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery

Bias is buried in the Frederick Douglass section of a cemetery filled with notable African Americans. There are doctors, scientists, playwrights and opera singers. Just up the road from his hard-to-find grave is a large memorial dedicated to bishops of the United House of Prayer. Entire families have purchased plots where ornate headstones with blank spaces wait for those who are still alive. There’s a small pond where a white heron was perched, and “Babyland,” a section just for the deceased young. Standing on the hill where Bias rests, you can look around and see nothing but trees. It feels miles away from Washington, D.C., miles away from Capitol Hill.

I like visiting cemeteries, but not because I have any real affinity for the macabre. I do it because I want to pay my respects, and visit the (often only) remaining place dedicated solely to the person I admire. It’s ironic, I guess, but I go to these places to celebrate the life of someone now dead, and I do it because I feel called to make the visit, to meet in death a person I had never met in life, but whose books I read, or whose art I admired, or whose movies I watched. Or, in the case of Bias, whose death shaped decades of American drug policy in a way that, frankly, I think he would have despised.

When we got back home, Dickson and I watched the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, “Without Bias,” released in 2009. Despite all the books I had read about Bias (Lewis Cole’s Never Too Young to Die is my favorite), I had never seen it before.

The title refers to so many things. Obviously it’s about a world – of professional basketball, of life at the University of Maryland, of life at the Bias home in Lanham, Maryland – that is now without Len. But it’s also a good descriptor of the film itself, that is so much without bias that it’s blameless to a fault.

The first part of the film is about Bias himself: his development as a basketball player, his tight relationship with his family, the way the university rallied around him, his selection by the Celtics and what would have been a lucrative contract with Reebok. But then it moves into the night Bias died, with interviews from friends who were there, teammates who waited at the hospital, his family and his coach. And here’s where the blamelessness gets weird. It mentions how Bias’s friend Brian Tribble procured the almost entirely-pure cocaine that stopped Bias’s heart, and it supposes that access to such a drug meant that Tribble was pretty far up the food chain. But then it stops: it doesn’t blame Tribble for being a drug dealer, and it doesn’t even blame Tribble for doing coke with Bias the night he died. Perhaps this is because Tribble already went through a lawsuit and was cleared for involvement in Bias’s death (even though he got busted for dealing coke again in 1993), and Tribble’s lengthy interview for the film allowed him to represent himself, with few other interviewees negating what he said.

But as the film moves on to what happened in the wake of Bias’s death, the blamelessness gets almost too weird. It discusses the drug war launched in Bias’s name, and mentions the millions of young African American men who were incarcerated on its heightened charges, but it doesn’t blame the legislators who passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (or its extension in 1988) and who kept mandatory minimums in place despite their horrific costs. It discusses the impact of Bias’s death on young children, but it doesn’t blame the scare tactics the drug war used, or the massive funding anti-drug education programs received while treatment or rehabilitation programs withered on the vine. There is one representative from Families Against Mandatory Minimums interviewed, but her brief words are overshadowed by – surprisingly – Len’s mother Lonise, who says that her son’s death was “like a seed.” Len went into the ground and what sprouted was an entire generation of children who knew, because of Len Bias, the dangers drugs could cause.

I wanted to shake my head and rub my eyes. It was hard for me to reconcile someone supporting the laws that had incarcerated millions of people from Bias’s demographic, all because of Bias’s death. Were there children who avoided drugs because of the subsequent media frenzy? Probably – I had a few friends say that it had. But unfortunately there are no statistics documenting the number of kids who didn’t try cocaine because Len Bias died in 1986. There are, however, numerous stats that show how many young black men were incarcerated because of the laws passed in Bias’s wake. Couldn’t the film have a certain amount of bias to say that, hey, maybe some kids didn’t use drugs, but because of the legislation passed in 1986/1988, the overwhelming costs to society were far too high? And that it was deeply and shamefully ironic that the death of one young black man resulted in the incarceration of millions more, and most of them for crack cocaine, a drug that wasn’t in Bias’s system at his time of death?

I left Lincoln Memorial Cemetery thinking about something other than the drug war too, and that was about the rapid and illusory costs of fame in the United States. Bias was predicted to be one of the best – a contemporary of Michael Jordan, the second overall draft pick. But he died before he played a single NBA game. His considerable abilities are now relegated to highlight reels, all because of one night of celebration. If his tiny plaque in an infrequently-visited section of a cemetery is any indication, you don’t get remembered if all you had was potential, and Americans are astonishingly quick to forget.

I left Lincoln thinking Len deserved more from a lifetime of athletic and personal achievement. He deserved more than a simple plaque in the ground, more than legislation that incarcerated millions, more than a documentary that refused to place blame. The whole world is without Bias now. Isn’t it time we realized the cost?


Last Friday I accepted an offer from editor Ben Platt at Basic Books (through the incredible work of my agent, Rayhané Sanders) to publish A Higher Calling (which may or may not retain that title), and I am incredibly, button-poppingly, over-the-moon-style thrilled to finally say that I SOLD THE BOOK I SOLD THE BOOK I SOLD THE BOOK I SOLD THE BOOK.

It’s been a long time coming. It took three agents (before Rayhané, my first two agents Who Shall Not Be Named wasted approx. 1 1/2 years of my life), about eight proposal drafts, and one last week of nail biting, but the thing is SOLD. We’re still working on the exact release date, but I’m hoping for late 2017. That will allow me to incorporate the results of the 2016 election (which could change a lot, either if up to five more states legalize marijuana, or if a Republican wins, like Chris Christie, who has vowed to re-enforce the federal law), as well as to make some more contacts in the activist world today and get a better idea of what they’re doing.

I couldn’t be happier about this. I’ve been researching and writing about marijuana activists since 2012, and, even after three years, I’m still enthralled by their story. What I like most about Ben is that he recognizes how important this story is, and the windows it opens to larger ideas about American society. The story of marijuana activism in the United States is so much more than that of people who were for or against pot. Its implications are vast: Once you understand the backstory of activist involvement in federal drug policy, you begin to understand the questions of citizenship, of morality, of ignorance and idealism, and of human rights that they raised. The story is so much larger than the sum of its parts. It begs the questions, What happens when activists’ ideals founder on the shoals of actual policy? What happens when policy is then based on (ultimately false) ideals? And, perhaps most importantly, are we persistently doomed to recreate the past (as we have, over and over again, concerning drug policy), or can an understanding of the past help direct, and possibly even improve, our collective future?

Last thoughts before I get back to work: I could not be happier to be with Basic, a remarkable and respectable house. To be on their catalog is an honor, and I know that they’ll do justice to my work. (I’m more worried about giving them a manuscript worthy of their imprint.) I always wanted to go with a commercial publisher if I could. I thought about academic and university presses – I even had a really excellent meeting with an editor from UPenn Press – but I’ve always felt that the message of my book was meant for a public, and not solely an academic, audience. This may kill my chances of ever getting an academic job (since commercial books, regardless of their social value or relationship to the dissertation, mean next to nothing to hiring committees), but at the moment I don’t care.

This book is finally going to see the light of day. I’ll think about what comes next after I deliver my manuscript.