Addressing Drug Abuse: The 1986 Act’s Impact and Focus

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986

To improve drug crime reporting, promote international drug control cooperation, and provide appropriations for alcohol and drug abuse programs.

This omnibus bill was drafted, considered and passed during the second session of the 99th Congress in 1986, just before the midterm elections. It was largely motivated by the media frenzy following the death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. The legislation introduced a mandatory minimum sentence for cocaine possession, and set the ratio of powder to crack cocaine at 100 to 1.


Originally passed during the media frenzy over the death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, this act established mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug possession and created a 100-to-1 disparity between powder and crack cocaine sentences. This law also created laws against money laundering, a practice that involves moving illegally obtained funds (from drug sales) through the banking system.

The act also made it easier to seize assets from drug offenders, including their houses, cars, and boats. And it made it easier for federal agencies to track down drug dealers by requiring them to report any money they received from drug sales.

The bill had 15 sections, or titles. The first title, Anti-Drug Enforcement, covers narcotics penalties, asset forfeiture, labeling of controlled substances, money laundering, and armed career criminals. Other sections deal with international narcotics control, interdiction, demand reduction, U.S. insular areas and national parks, and Federal employee substance abuse education and treatment.


The 1986 act was a major turning point in the war on drugs. It shifted emphasis to prevention and treatment programs, as well as adding new penalties for drug abusers. This shift was driven by the rise of cocaine use in the United States. At a hearing of the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control in the weeks leading up to the passage of the act, Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel of Harlem was particularly vocal, stressing the need for the government to send a strong message to drug dealers that they would face serious consequences for their crimes.

The act contains 15 titles and covers many areas of drug policy including penalties, drug enforcement, demand reduction, and education. It also amends other laws, and makes other technical amendments. It strengthens Federal efforts to encourage foreign cooperation in eradicating illicit drug crops and halting international drug trafficking, improves enforcement of drug laws and enhances interdiction efforts, provides leadership in developing drug abuse prevention programs, and expands Federal support for drug treatment programs.


The late ’80s marked a turning point for drug policy, and while cocaine was still the major issue at hand, the focus turned to youth use and abuse. Rangel and many Democratic members of congress argued that the government must put a larger emphasis on prevention programs and treatment rather than simply enforcement.

The legislation pushed for an expansion of drug abuse treatment and rehabilitation, including a requirement that the head of each executive branch agency establish employee drug abuse assistance programs. It also made a number of changes to existing law, most significantly by making the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration (ADAMHA) an agency of the Public Health Service.

It also departed from its previous distinction between powder and crack cocaine and instead simply split the minimum sentencing amounts: 50 grams of crack now merited a ten-year mandatory sentence, while possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine carried no such penalty. The act also created a criminal offense for the assembly, maintenance, or management of a place for the manufacturing, storing, or using of controlled substances.


During the weeks leading up to the passage of this act, it became apparent that there was a significant concern within Congress that the government wasn’t doing enough to address youth drug abuse. Unlike earlier legislation, this particular piece of law allocated a larger percentage of federal funds to prevention and education programs.

Long-term drug use can cause mental health issues, heart or lung problems, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, and even death, but the good news is that drug misuse is preventable. Prevention involves identifying people who may be at risk for drug use and providing them with the resources, information, and support needed to make healthy choices.

The crack cocaine epidemic devastated low-income and African American communities, causing emergency room visits to triple and crime rates to skyrocket. This was the motivating factor for many of the members who were drafting this legislation. Len Bias’s death also added to the urgency. He was a young, black NBA star who died from a cocaine overdose after being drafted to the Boston Celtics.

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