Box of Pain

What does the Grateful Dead, America’s most popular live musical act, a band whose devoted following helped it sell 1.8 million concert tickets and gross $47 million last year, have to do with mandatory minimums? Quite a bit.

Five years ago, no more than 100 Deadheads were believed to have been in jail. But today, up to 2,000 fans are in state or federal prisons, serving prison sentences as long as half, equal to or even double their age. Why? They are victims of mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which routinely give small-time drug offenders — with no history of violence — longer prison terms than felons convicted of the most heinous crimes.

Take Deadhead Fred Anderson, who is serving eight years and nine months without parole. If Anderson had tried to kill a man, raped a woman, kidnapped a child, held up a liquor store or stolen $80 million or more, he would be spending less time in jail. Anderson’s crime? In 1989, as a 32-year-old college student, he sold his brother-in-law Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD). Anderson’s incarceration comes at a minimum total cost of $150,000 to taxpayers. Worse, it comes at the expense of prison space that could go to violent criminals: nonviolent inmates like Anderson now comprise 21.5 percent of all federal prisoners. Unlike Anderson, however, more than two-thirds of incarcerated Deadheads are in their late teens or 20s.

Dead fans and their families have joined in the fight against mandatory minimums. Magazines that cater to Deadheads, such as Relix, with a circulation of 50,000, and Dupree’s Diamond News, its smaller rival, routinely publish letters from prisoners. Deadhead inmates produce newsletters such as U.S. Blues and Midnight Special. The Dead community, it seems, is doing all it can. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the band.

If the Grateful Dead were apolitical, its lack of involvement would come as no surprise. But it isn’t. Band members have held benefit concerts, donated album proceeds, collectively presided over single-issue press conferences and routinely granted interviews to talk about other (less controversial) political concerns, such as the environment and rain forest preservation. A few years ago, for example, co-lead guitarist Bob Weir wrote an article for The New York Times op-ed page about preserving Montana’s wilderness.

Grateful Dead publicist Dennis McNally declined to explain this apparent inconsistency. But it looks like the band is trying to deny its own association with drugs. The Grateful Dead were pioneers with LSD in the 60s. Band members talked (and sang) about their own drug use with “reckless frankness,” says McNally. Their hallucinogenic antics were chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In addition to being America’s longest-running and most successful band, the Dead is the most influential progenitor of psychedelic rock.

But you wouldn’t know that from what band members say now. The Grateful Dead publicly discourage illegal drug use at its concerts. Even the band’s philanthropic donations appear to be driven by the same concern. In 1992 and 1993 the Grateful Dead, through its Rex Foundation, gave $10,000 each year to the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. While that sum is not insignificant for FAMM, it is pocket change for the Rex Foundation, which last year gave away nearly $1 million. Rex gives standard grants of $10,000 to dozens of ecological and social causes. Although the band finally made a statement about mandatory minimums at its inauguration to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in January, it has nonetheless decided not to make a more significant contribution to this cause — the only one that directly affects its followers.

What the Grateful Dead and others who inhaled have lost sight of is that the debate now has less to do with appearing to condone drug use than with fairness. Last fall, an American Bar Association poll found that 90 percent of federal judges are against mandatory sentencing laws. In February, The New York Times editorial page lambasted “the nation’s foolish sentencing policies,” adding that we should “expect more courage” from the attorney general and the administration. Many Deadheads expect more courage from the band. (Others have gone through wild intellectual contortions to explain the Dead’s noninvolvement. Dupree’s has received letters claiming that band members “are being forced, with the threat of their own incarceration, to keep touring, so the Feds can keep filling their bust quotas.”)

Having contributed to the popularity of psychedelics, the Grateful Dead has the money to make a difference. It also has the influence. No band has a more devoted following among Washington’s elite: John Kerry and Al Gore, among others, go to Dead shows; president-elect Bill Clinton invited the group to perform at his inauguration. How long will it be before the Grateful Dead puts its money where its music is?