By Jeremy Haile & Michael Collins
The Marshall Project
A national icon dies of an accidental overdose. A media frenzy develops as public scrutiny focuses on the new, highly potent drug that is suspected of killing him.
At the same time, a measure has been proposed in Congress that would impose harsh new mandatory prison sentences for offenses involving tiny quantities of the new drug.
The icon, of course, is Prince. The drug is fentanyl, an opioid painkiller up to 50 times more powerful than heroin. The amendment, offered to a defense policy bill now pending on the Senate floor, was proposed by Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, which is experiencing a genuine crisis as overdose deaths mount in the Granite State. If approved, the amendment would trigger a five-year mandatory prison sentence for an individual caught with as little as half a gram of fentanyl.
But we have been here before. Thirty years ago this month, University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias died of a drug overdose just hours after the Boston Celtics selected him second overall in the 1986 NBA Draft. His death sparked a whirlwind of panic about crack cocaine, the new drug that reportedly killed him.
By the fall, Congress had adopted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which included harsh mandatory-minimum penalties for crack cocaine offenses. The new law imposed a five-year mandatory prison sentence for individuals possessing just five grams of crack — the weight of two sugar packets. To trigger the same penalty for powder cocaine, one would have needed to sell at least 500 grams, thus establishing the notorious 100:1 drug quantity distinction between the two forms of cocaine.
Picture: Yves Lorson from Kapellen, Belgium (Prince) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons