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.

“But I went into the humanities for the $$$!”*

*No, I didn’t.

It would appear as though the problem that haunts the halls of modern academia (which is to say that adjuncts are taking over the academy while being paid poverty wages) is riding the heels of journalism too.

Since I’ve started working at the CPI, I’ve signed up for some of the bajillions of emails that the journalism industry sends out to itself each day. I get headlines from the American Press Institute, the Pew Research Center, and Neiman Lab in my inbox every morning (or, in Neiman Lab’s case, every afternoon. Get on it Neiman Lab!). They’re all pretty good, if highly repetitious, and underscore the fact that journalism is the only industry more interested in navel-gazing than academia.

When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced last week, the prize for local reporting went to three reporters from the Torrance, Ca.-based Daily Breeze. And, shortly after the winners were made public, there was an onslaught of articles (many from those email list-generators) about one of those writers, Rob Kuznia, who, after 15 years in the business, left the Daily Breeze last August for a better-paying job in PR.

“I was able to pay the rent. But I wasn’t able to save anything. A house was a pipe dream,” Kuznia said. “It’s the kind of thing that if I was in my 20s I would have been okay with, but I was approaching 40, so it was scary.”

Scary indeed.

It seems like this what teaching and journalism have become – a place where recent graduates (20-somethings in journalism, 30-somethings in academia) can muck about for a few years before things get “serious” (i.e. marriage and children) and it’s time to actually be an adult (i.e. leave those scrawny fields for some “greener” pastures). Because, if you stick around in these industries and don’t “make it” (i.e. get a tenure-track teaching position or some well-paying position at BuzzFeed), the options become pretty bleak.

margaret maryTake, for example, this NPR article about Margaret Mary Vojtko, the 83-year-old who died penniless and nearly homeless after 25 years of part-time teaching at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Vojtko had cancer and “very high medical bills,” according to Daniel Kovalik, senior counsel to the Steelworkers Union, with whom Duquesne’s adjuncts were trying to organize. She earned $10,000 a year and had no benefits, and was overwhelmed with both debt and doubt: Duquesne, like most schools, renewed her contact annually and it was never guaranteed. Vojtko was probably also only teaching two to three classes a year. At $2,500 to $5,000 per course (and you are paid per course), most adjuncts make between $20,000 (if you’re only working 50 or so hours a week) and $40,000 a year (if you’re really busting ass). That’s a low wage lifestyle without added benefits and no guarantees that your job will be back next semester. It’s terrifying.

Now Vojtko is the exception rather than the rule. But that’s not to say that her story isn’t illustrative. And it’s not to say that there aren’t a whole lot of other Margaret Mary Vojtkos out there, both teaching in our classrooms and writing our news stories.

But the way I see it is that Vojtko and Kuznia as two sides of the same coin. Kuznia bailed out of journalism when things got too rough, even though, after he left, he was awarded one of the most prestigious prizes for his work. His award is essentially a postmortem to the end of his career, even though he claims he would reconsider journalism jobs if they could support his family. Meanwhile, Vojtko stuck with it, dedicating her whole life to teaching, and died penniless and destitute because of her choice. Could Vojtko have pulled a Kuznia and bailed out when things got rough? And could Kuznia have been the next Vojtko, struggling – and perhaps even dying – from dedication to his career?

I think Vojtko and Kuznia are closer than we think. They represent what happens when people from the humanities struggle and suffer in an economy that doesn’t adequately remunerate what we do. As undervalued actors in a global society, they represent two of the more extreme choices humanities scholars have to make: should we bail out, or stay? And what are the costs of either choice, or both?

Writing, teaching, reporting, living the life of the mind and defending culture and the “truth” – these are the things that initially attracted me, and most of the people I know, to the humanities in the first place. Journalists stay in journalism because it’s a “calling.” That’s also the reason most people teach. And yet, due to “fluctuations in the market” and the “changing nature of the industry,” it’s also the reason why we’ve allowed writers and teachers and professors and journalists to be some of the people who are getting screwed the hardest by the changes taking place in newsrooms and classrooms across the country.

My husband was a journalist when we came back from Africa and were living in the D.C. area. He was thrilled to find the job – it was 2008 and he was thrilled to find anything – but he was especially excited to write about arts and culture. He was not terribly excited when they offered him his starting salary, however: $30,000 a year (though that came with benefits, so he had it better than most adjuncts). He convinced the paper to up it to $35k (no small feat) and off he went, driving down to southern Maryland from Takoma Park every day, piling over 50,000 miles on our old Hyundai Elantra. And why? Because that’s what he was: a journalist, and a proud one. So proud that he was willingly underpaid. For a guy with a bachelor’s degree from a good school and years of experience, even in 2008 it was hard to get $35k. That’s small-town journalism for you.

He did this for four promotion-less years, until he realized that it just wasn’t sustainable. Now he still writes – he’s a speechwriter for the Secretary of Transportation – but he isn’t in journalism. And it’s precisely because of his career change that we’re now able to begin discussing things like buying a house and having a baby – things that would have been impossible when he was a journalist and I was a grad student.

Dickson is just like Rob Kuznia. He abandoned journalism when he realized that he needed to (and, yes, that he wanted to) live a life that was more economically sustainable. And why the hell not? Why wouldn’t someone in their mid-30s be interested in being self-sufficient and pursuing the markers of functional adulthood that not-mooching-off-your-parents bring?

So why do we continue to allow universities to be bloated with administrators while paying adjuncts poverty-level wages? And why do we claim to be interested in the news when Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists have to abandon the field to go into PR so they can afford to buy a home? Just because people feel a “calling” to enter into a field doesn’t mean that they should be punished for their decisions. The same holds true for teachers at the pre-college level, social workers, health care aids, and police and firefighters.

And yet, for as much news as Kuznia and Vojtko generate, very little is being done to actually solve the problem. Journalism is still a “sinking ship.” Myriad commentators continue to warn against getting a humanities Ph.D. And people like Dickson – who was really a good journalist! – and me – who taught my own class once and the students didn’t riot! – are going to keep leaving the field, probably at an even faster pace, if we can’t make lives out of this that don’t leave us dying in the damn streets.

If you get a Pulitzer and still bail, you’d think people would start to reconsider what was happening to the state of American journalism, and why. And if an 83-year-old dies destitute for her “love of teaching,” you’d think universities would open their hearts. But are they? Well, not yet. Maybe they will, and that’ll be the subject of another article I read in an email from Neiman Lab or the American Press Institute. In fact, I look forward to that day.

But until then, it’s your call, Industry, and your future too. Use us or lose us. Because once we’re gone, like Kuznia and Vojtko, we’re really gone. And that waste of human talent is huge.

Washington Post article up!

It took a while (two and a half months) for it to see the light of day, but the article I wrote about D.C. parent activists and their opinions on the city’s new legalization law is finally LIVE. You can access it here.

I love the pics – they’re fascinating. Both Vonneva Pettigrew and Joyce Nalepka offered the Post photos of themselves during their heyday, and they’re amazing. I’ve never seen them before. I’m copying and posting them here, because I LOVE Vonneva’s Louis Vuitton clutch.

Joyce Nalepka (left), Vonneva Pettigrew (center), and an unidentified (but supremely stylish) woman at an NFP luncheon in the 1980s. Note Pettigrew's LV clutch! Girl had style!

Joyce Nalepka (left), Vonneva Pettigrew (center), and an unidentified (but supremely stylish) woman at an NFP luncheon in the 1980s. Note Pettigrew’s LV clutch. Amazing.

Screenshot 2015-04-17 14.27.35

Vonneva Pettigrew (center) talks with First Lady Nancy Reagan at the White House in the 1980s.

That’s really the issue though, isn’t it? No one really has full access to everything these women did. When I was talking to Nalepka in February she told me that she had over half a million pages of material in her home office – that’s an archive in and of itself. But she and her husband are moving soon and who knows what will happen to all that stuff. I’m hoping to get over there and see it, but it’s always a matter of time.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the article. It’s not the complete story, but it can’t be – not in 2,000 words. There’s always so much that goes unmentioned, that’s elided. And some of the language is a bit more fluffy than I’d like, but my editor said it had to fit the tone of the Style section, so there wasn’t much I could do about that. Still, I hope the women like it. I feel I portrayed them fairly, and even though I voted for legalization, I can see where they’re coming from. The D.C. law is full of holes, and the people who opposed it have as much of a right to have their story told as those who supported it. After all, they’re not trying to Andy Harris the thing – Vonneva just wants D.C. residents to be educated about pot’s effects. What’s so wrong with that?


Just Say Yes: What to Make of the Marijuana Memoir

Maybe it was only a matter of time.

just say yesIn recent months, the New York Times has ramped up its coverage of marijuana, covering everything from how Colorado’s marijuana taxes may have to be returned to residents, to Obama’s trip to Jamaica, to op-ed essays like this one, simply called “How I Buy Weed.” The writer, 68-year-old Catherine Hiller, is the author of the forthcoming book Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir, that will be published – as if the puns weren’t already laid on thick enough – on April 20, or 4/20.


Yesterday Hiller was featured in another profile piece in the NYT, and while I find her book’s rather obvious title and clichéd release date somewhat tiring, I’m interested in what Hiller represents and in what she has to say. She seems to recognize the social and racial disparities that make it acceptable for her to be featured in two articles about her illegal drug use, and she knows that it’s because of her position as a middle-aged white woman that she’s allowed to publicly admit, and even to celebrate, her daily marijuana use, without facing any immediate legal ramifications.

Catherine Hiller

In response to a critic who said that Hiller’s marijuana use is evidence of her living in a “cocoon of white privilege,” Hiller defended her position by arguing, “Maybe I won’t get stopped. But I wrote this not because of my privilege, but because I think it’s absurd that anyone would get stopped for this. Whatever I can do to legalize it, I will.”

I think this is indicative of the larger shift that’s taking place around marijuana use. The strength of the argument for legalization is being reinforced by a growing acceptance of white middle-class marijuana use, especially among aging baby boomers. While black marijuana use continues to be demonized (see the horrendous comments on this right-wing article about the levels of THC in Michael Brown’s body when he was killed by officer Darren Wilson last August), white marijuana use is seen as either titillating and fun or shockingly banal, depending on who’s writing about it.

Lately, white pot use is seen as pushing the envelope. It’s become exciting, even artistic, for viewers to look inside the lives of regular pot users, as though white smokers were some kind of exotic beast and High Maintenance was a kind of osprey cam, with everyone milling around to see what might happen next. Emily Nussbaum, in The New Yorker, called the web series “luxurious and twisty and humane, radiating new ideas about storytelling.” And, in the same magazine, Nick Paumgarten praised the pot-smoking ladies of Broad City as embodying “the freedom, debauchery, ineptitude, and fellowship that people, particularly young women, must give up, or at least hide from view, in order to function as adults.” Portraying women smoking pot, eating pizza and having sex was, for Paumgarten, nothing less than “sneak-attack feminism.”

Hiller seems to be tapping into this feeling – the idea that there is a sense of liberation inherent in “coming out of the cannabis closet,” if you’re white enough and middle-class enough to do so without fear. She’s even started her own website,, that is less about the author or her book than it is, as the site puts it, “a place for your weed memories and reminiscences. It’s for those who have ever enjoyed lighting up and would like to share their stories.”

(So far only a few people have. Under the suggested topics of “The First Time I Got High,” “My Most Memorable High,” “Close Encounters with the Law,” “Scoring,” and, somewhat amusingly, “Everything Else,” there are only four or five entries apiece at most.)

But Hiller’s book isn’t totally without meaning or utility. What she represents is someone who has consistently used marijuana for over fifty years and who hasn’t, as she put it, “hit rock bottom.” “My story is the the story of so many people who use each day,” she says. “And so what? What’s the issue? What will it lead to?” Her celebratory, even emancipatory tone makes me feel like there’s a Twitter campaign around the corner, with a hashtag like #stillsmokin popping up on self-promoting tweets (“Smoked for twenty years and I’m still employed!!! #stillsmokin”) in the same way #blacklivesmatter or #yesallwomen digitally gathered activists around a cause.

Life-Magazine-1969-10-31It also reminds me of the late 1960s, when white smoking became so banal that it was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine on October 31, 1969. “At least 12 million Americans have now tried it,” the cover read. “Should it be legalized?”

Obviously that never happened, though the widespread decriminalization laws that swept the country from 1973 to 1978 occurred almost exclusively because the face of marijuana was painted a pale shade of lily white. And now the same thing is happening again: if history is any guide, the whitening, and subsequent banalization, of marijuana use will generally lead to greater acceptance of the drug, reflected primarily in state laws.

And now, with her new memoir (which, yes, I am planning to read), Hiller may be the movement’s new face. She’s not using marijuana for any medical cause: “I just like the feeling,” she says. And her desire to use her book and website to liberate “secret smokers” may not be far off. Because of the overwhelming layers of race and class privilege that correspond to her drug use, Hiller as the new face of marijuana reform will probably lead to far more changes in laws than the faces of, say, Snoop Dogg or Michael Brown.

Hiller sees her movement as comparable to the drive for gay marriage. “It’s hard for people to change their mind-set after so many years,” she said. “But look at marriage equality and how that happened so fast. That was unheard-of five years ago. So maybe smoking pot will be completely normal, and no one will raise an eyebrow when they find out somebody smokes.”

The woman who landed a book deal from smoking marijuana wants people to stop raising an eyebrow about pot use? I highly doubt that, but perhaps.