Washington, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Marion Barry was a controversial Washington, D.C., mayor. During his first term, he was arrested in an FBI sting operation after he was captured on a surveillance camera smoking crack cocaine with a former girlfriend. After serving a six-month jail term, Barry was reelected to political office. The videotape of Barry smoking crack and yelling obscenities caused a sensation when it was repeatedly broadcast on television.

Summary of Event

Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, D.C., had been suspected of possessing and using drugs since the early 1980’s. Previous efforts by law enforcement to indict him had failed, but his luck eventually ran out. On January 18, 1990, the mayor was caught smoking crack cocaine with former girlfriend Rasheeda Moore in a sting operation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He was arrested, convicted of possession and use of narcotics, and sentenced to six months in federal prison. Upon his release from prison, he was elected to a second term as mayor in 1994. [kw]Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use, Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion (Jan. 18, 1990) [kw]Drug Use, Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for (Jan. 18, 1990) Barry, Marion Washington, D.C.;Marion Barry[Barry] Video evidence;and Marion Barry[Barry] Barry, Marion Washington, D.C.;Marion Barry[Barry] Video evidence;and Marion Barry[Barry] [g]United States;Jan. 18, 1990: Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use[02460] [c]Law and the courts;Jan. 18, 1990: Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use[02460] [c]Corruption;Jan. 18, 1990: Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use[02460] [c]Drugs;Jan. 18, 1990: Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use[02460] [c]Government;Jan. 18, 1990: Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use[02460] [c]Politics;Jan. 18, 1990: Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use[02460] [c]Public morals;Jan. 18, 1990: Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry Is Arrested for Drug Use[02460] Moore, Rasheeda King, Wanda

Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry in 1996.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

On the day of the arrest, Moore had telephoned Barry’s office several times between 6:00 and 6:25 p.m. His secretary picked up the phone on Moore’s last attempt to reach him and informed her that the mayor had already left the office but had taken Moore’s phone number with him. Soon after Moore’s final call, Barry telephoned Moore, who invited him to her room at the Vista International Hotel. She told Barry that she was in town visiting from Los Angeles with a friend and that they wanted to see him. That “friend” was FBI special agent Wanda King, undercover for this assignment as Wanda Moore.

Barry agreed to stop by the hotel after taking care of some city business (a drawing for a housing lottery program). He insisted on meeting Moore in the hotel lobby instead of in her room. This change of plans required quick thinking on the part of the agents running the sting operation. Three video cameras and microphones had been placed in room 727, where Moore was waiting for Barry. For the sting to work, Barry had to be coaxed to the room. Moore was instructed to ask Barry once again to meet her in her room and to tell him that she had ordered room service. Barry called Moore after he was finished with his mayoral duties. Although Barry first protested her request to meet in her room, he finally agreed to do so.

At 7:35, Barry entered room 727, greeted Moore’s friend Wanda (Agent King) with a handshake, and then hugged Moore. Wanda left the room so that the former lovers could reconnect. Barry and Moore drank cognac, watched television, and talked. Barry then tried to talk Moore into having sex, and he groped her several times. She refused his advances and steered the conversation to drug use. They both agreed that they wanted some cocaine, but neither had the drug on hand. The banter about sex and drugs continued for some time, until Wanda telephoned to let them know she was returning to the room. Upon her return she pulled Moore into the bathroom, telling her she had drugs for them to buy. Barry offered to buy the drugs for $100 and Moore returned to the bathroom with the money, “bought” the cocaine, and returned to the bedroom with two $30 packets of crack cocaine. Barry told Moore that he no longer smoked crack and asked if Wanda had some powder cocaine. Moore went back into the bathroom to discuss the situation with Wanda.

Believing the operation was now a failure, Wanda left the room, leaving Moore and Barry. Moore suggested to Barry that they leave the hotel. She, too, thought the setup had failed. Barry then asked what drugs Moore had purchased. When she indicated that she did not buy anything, Barry told her to “go get some.” Moore found Wanda in the hallway and asked her if she could get some powder cocaine. Wanda said that she could, but that it would take about an hour to find some.

After Wanda left, Barry asked Moore for a crack pipe. Even though he had used crack before, he appeared to fumble with the pipe. He asked Moore to get it ready and then insisted she take the first hit, possibly to try to determine if she was setting him up. Moore refused, saying that crack made her nervous and hyperactive and that she was going to wait for the powder cocaine. In the meantime, Barry prepared the pipe and took two successive hits. He then drank the rest of his cognac and suggested they go downstairs to the lobby. In an attempt to stall their departure, Moore began cleaning up the evidence. Barry called his bodyguards, who had been notified (and quieted) by the FBI of the sting operation, to alert them that he was departing for the lobby. At that point, agents and officers from the FBI and Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., entered room 727 from an adjacent room and arrested Barry for possession and use of illegal drugs. Barry insisted that he did not have any drugs on his person and that he had not been using drugs. He began to verbalize his dismay about his decision to visit Moore in her hotel room, saying that he had been set up. “I’ll be goddamn. Bitch set me up” is an oft-quoted line, attributed to Barry, from the sting operation transcript.

Barry was escorted from the hotel room discretely by service elevator, taken to FBI headquarters, fingerprinted, and photographed. As a courtesy, Mayor Barry was booked there instead of the central booking office in Washington, D.C. He also provided a urine sample (which later tested positive for marijuana, cocaine, and alcohol). Barry resigned as mayor and served six months in federal prison.


Barry’s arrest and conviction were not as scandalous as his reelection to city office after serving time in prison. The sting operation leading to Barry’s arrest interrupted but did not end his political career. He was elected to the Washington, D.C., city council in 1992 and elected to a second term as mayor in 1994. His success, after such public display of his shortcomings, may be due in part to where he served as mayor and councilman. Most residents of Washington, D.C. are African Americans. Barry, who is also African American, was well liked by those he represented.

As a councilman, Barry represented ward 8, an area that comprises mostly lower-income residents and is riddled with crime and violence. The residents of ward 8 perhaps felt connected to him because they believed he shared their struggles as racial minorities. Barry was well-educated (he had a master’s degree in organic chemistry from Fisk University), but he lived in the jurisdiction he represented, a working-class area whose residents were not well-educated. These factors gave him immense credibility and ultimately led to his ability to turn a scandalous situation, a career-ending situation in most cases, into a positive to further his political career. Barry, Marion Washington, D.C.;Marion Barry[Barry] Video evidence;and Marion Barry[Barry]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Agronsky, Jonathan I. Z. Marion Barry: The Politics of Race. Latham, N.Y.: British American, 1991. An overview of Marion Barry’s life in the context of racial politics. Also examines the FBI sting and the minimal public scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barras, Jonetta Rose. The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders. Baltimore: Bancroft Press, 1998. Journalist Barras examines Marion Barry’s political comeback and his adoration by constituents and other supporters, and attempts to answer questions about his paradoxical life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gillette, Howard, Jr. “Protest of Power in Washington, D.C.: The Troubled Legacy of Marion Barry.” In African-American Mayors: Race, Politics, and the American City, edited by David R. Colburn and Jeffrey S. Adler. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Examines Marion Barry’s political career. Provides an overview of various scandals occurring during his terms in office.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kellerman, Barbara. Bad Leadership: What It Is, How It Happens, Why It Matters. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2004. A study of the scandals involving several leaders from throughout the world. Considers Marion Barry “intemperate” and lacking in self-control.

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Categories: History