1986: AIDS, Crack, and C. Everett Koop
26 Pages Posted: 30 Sep 2014
Date Written: 2014
In 1986, Ronald Reagan’s America confronted twin public health crises: AIDS and crack. There were striking similarities between the two, in that both developed quietly before public alarms were raised; both were identified with traditionally oppressed groups; both spread in a similar pattern; and both created fear in the American public. Where they differed, though, was in the reaction. After initial missteps, AIDS was approached through problem-solving doctors and researchers rather than quarantine. In contrast, crack was confronted with a heavy retributive hand. AIDS was transformed to a chronic, treatable illness. In contrast, crack not only continued to plague communities, but the use of mass incarceration created new problems.
Four striking personalities shaped these differing outcomes. With AIDS, the chief strategist was the remarkable C. Everett Koop, and the public face was a young boy named Ryan White. For crack, a chief strategist was the vituperative William Bennett, and the public face was basketball player Len Bias. The latter pair drove the fight against crack towards disaster, while the former created a more humane world.
This article argues that it is not too late to learn the lessons of 1986 and take a better approach towards narcotics, and that this approach might best be led by someone who understands the driving force behind drugs (the profit motive) the way that Koop understood the driving force behind AIDS (a virus). In our present era, that person may be someone who straddles business and politics, such as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Keywords: C. Everett Koop, Len Bias, crack cocaine, AIDS, 1986, mass incarceration, sentencing, prosecutorial discretion, Eric Holder
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