The Anit-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Revival of Draconian Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Just 16 years after the passage of The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 which all but eliminated harsh mandatory minimums for federal drug offenses, Congress reversed course and passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (ADAA). The ADAA was passed by Congress during the media frenzy that followed the cocaine induced death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. The ADAA established harsh mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses involving “crack” cocaine (referred to as “cocaine base” in the federal statutes).

Congressional members used Bias’ high-profile death as a political opportunity to portray a “tough on crime” stance. However, Congress utterly failed to undertake any discussion or debate about the failings of the mandatory minimums found in the The Boggs Act of 1951and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 (which I have discussed in previous blogs).
In fact, Sen. Specter noted that Congress “may be acting with undue haste” and Sen. Mathias stated that none of the members of the Senate “had an adequate opportunity to study this enormous package” and that the ADAA “did not emerge from the crucible of the committee process, tempered by the heat of debate.”
As I have discussed in prior blogs, the ADAA established Draconian mandatory minimums for relatively small quantities of crack cocaine while mandating much shorter sentences for an equal amount of powder cocaine. However, 23 years of experience has shown us that the fears that Congress used to justify these obscene mandatory sentences for crack offenses have simply not materialized.

Tilem & Campbell is currently challenging the constitutionality of the powder cocaine v. crack cocaine sentencing disparity in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. We also anticipate filing another appeal shortly (also in the Second Circuit) arguing that the powder v. crack sentencing disparity violates African-Americans’ equal protection rights. Should you have a sentencing issue or appeal you would like to discuss with our attorneys, call 1-888-ANY-CRIME toll free or visit us on the web at

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