It is natural to try to salvage something of value from our tragedies: some renewal of faith, some valid principle, some lesson. So what is there to be salvaged from the tragedy of Lenny Bias, born-again Christian, gifted athlete, prospective millionaire, dead at age 22 because he, perhaps for the first time, used cocaine?
Probably not much.
Many of Bias' young admirers may find in the shock of his death the strength to say a permanent "no" to illicit drugs. A few once-in-a-while users of cocaine, heroin, PCP or other substances may be jolted into saying: No more. There may even be one or two regular abusers of narcotics who will think about Len Bias and quit.
I'm cynical enough to doubt it. What seems more likely is that a lot of people will straighten up for a time, just as we all drive more carefully for an hour or so after we've seen a bad wreck, and then go back to their old patterns.
The truth is, as those most susceptible to the blandishments of chemically induced euphoria know full well, that coke rarely kills quickly. It does its dirty work far more insidiously than that, by wrecking priorities and budgets and careers. The youngsters -- particularly the young athletes we hope will benefit from the tragedy of Len Bias -- already know the tragedy of John Lucas and Micheal Ray Richardson, gifted players whose professional careers have been destroyed because of their unshakable obsession with cocaine.
sk So why are so many of them still tempted to experiment with drugs? It must be because they are aware of other athletes, famous and not so famous, who seem to be able to snort now and again without obvious harmful effect. Maybe they believe that, just as many people smoke cigarettes without getting lung cancer or drink liquor without succumbing to alcoholism or cirrhosis, it is quite possible to use cocaine without having it become an obsession. What will they salvage from Len Bias' death?
There will be a lot of talk, and perhaps a spate of legislation, aimed at getting tough on the drug trade. I'd like to see it wiped out too, but nothing I have seen convinces me that tougher laws and stricter enforcement will accomplish that goal. The potential profits are so enormous that there will be drug traffic as long as there are customers for the deadly stuff.
We keep hoping that we can salvage something useful from the drug-linked deaths of the famous -- John Belushi, Bias, Jimi Hendrix, David Kennedy -- and we never do. It's hard for me to see how we can. Like the death of a loved one from tobacco-induced lung cancer, these tragedies serve only to remind us of what we already know.
They also urge us, however irrationally, to vengeance. Already there are hints that whoever supplied Bias and his friends with coke on that fatal night will, if he can be found, be charged with murder. Fine. But shouldn't we also face the painful truth that, no matter how venal the supplier might be, he didn't force drugs on anybody? What seems so hard for us to grasp, particularly when the victims are people we care about or who remind us of ourselves or our children, is that there can be no drug suppliers, no lucrative drug industry, unless there are willing buyers and users of the stuff.
I don't know what makes a person want to experiment with dangerous drugs, whether that person is an on-top-of-the-world Len Bias or a headed-nowhere street dude. I don't understand how anyone, knowing of the risks of overdoses or AIDS from heroin abuse, or the brain-killing potential of PCP, or the effects of cocaine can nevertheless put himself at risk.
But it does strike me that the link in the drug-abuse chain most deserving of our attention is not the South American peasant who grows the stuff or the money-driven criminals who peddle it or the law-enforcers who can't seem to stop it but the willing user who knowingly risks life, health and substance in order to have it.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that there are some 22 million at-least-occasional users of cocaine. The death of one of them, even the greatly admired, superbly gifted Len Bias, won't change that.