How America Lost the War on Drugs
7. The Harvard Man
For the cops on the front lines of the War on Drugs, the federal government's fixation with marijuana was deeply perplexing. As they saw it, the problem wasn't pot but the drug-related violence that accompanied cocaine and other hard drugs. After the crack epidemic in the late 1980s, police commissioners around the country, like Lee Brown in Houston, began adding more officers and developing computer mapping to target neighborhoods where crime was on the rise. The crime rate dropped. But by the mid-1990s, police in some cities were beginning to realize there was a certain level that they couldn't get crime below. Mass jailings weren't doing the trick: Only fifteen percent of those convicted of federal drug crimes were actual traffickers; the rest were nothing but street-level dealers and mules, who could always be replaced.
Police in Boston, concerned about violence between youth drug gangs, turned for assistance to a group of academics. Among them was a Harvard criminologist named David Kennedy. Working together, the academics and members of the department's anti-gang unit came up with what Kennedy calls a "quirky" strategy and convinced senior police commanders to give it a try. The result, which began in 1995, was the Boston Gun Project, a collaborative effort among ministers and community leaders and the police to try to break the link between the drug trade and violent crime. First, the project tracked a particular drug-dealing gang, mapping out its membership and operations in detail. Then, in an effort called Operation Ceasefire, the dealers were called into a meeting with preachers and parents and social-service providers, and offered a deal: Stop the violence, or the police will crack down with a vengeance. "We know the seventeen guys you run with," the gangbangers were told. "If anyone in your group shoots somebody, we'll arrest every last one of you." The project also extended drug treatment and other assistance to anyone who wanted it.
The effort worked: The rates of homiÂcide and violence among young men in Boston dropped by two-thirds. Drug dealing didn't stop â" "people continued what they were doing," Kennedy concedes, "but they put their guns down." As Kennedy reflected on the success of the Boston project, which ran for five years, he wondered if he had discovered a deeper truth about drug-related violence. If the murders weren't a necessary component of the drug trade â" if it was possible to separate the two â" perhaps cities could find a way to reduce the violence, even if they could do nothing about the drugs.
In 2001, Kennedy got a call from the mayor of San Francisco that gave him a chance to examine his theories in a new setting. The city had experienced a recent spike in its murder rate, much of it caused by an ongoing feud between two drug-dealing gangs â" Big Block and West Mob â" that had resulted in dozens of murders over the years. Could Kennedy, the mayor asked, help police figure out how to stop the killings?
Kennedy flew out to San Francisco and met with police. But as he researched the history of the violence, it seemed to confirm his findings in Boston. Though both Big Block and West Mob were involved in dealing drugs, the shootings were not really drug-related â" the two groups occupied different territories and were not battling over turf. "The feud had started over who would perform next at a neighborhood rap event," says Kennedy, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "They had been killing each other ever since."
Such evidence suggested that drug enforcement needed to focus more narrowly on those responsible for the violence. "Seventy percent of the violence in these hot neighborhoods comes back to drugs," Kennedy says. "But one of the profound myths is that these homicides are about the drug trade. The violence is driven by these crews â" but they're not killing each other over business." The real spark igniting the murders, he realized, was peer pressure, a kind of primordial male goad that drove young gang members to kill each other even in instances when they weren't sure they wanted to.
Given that police departments had already locked up every drug dealer in sight and were still having problems with violence, Kennedy thought a new approach was worth a try. "There's a difference between saying, 'I'm watching this, and you should stop,' and putting someone in federal lockup," he says. "The violence is not about the drug business â" but that's a very hard thing for people to understand."
But in the early days of the Bush administration, police departments were in no hurry to experiment with an approach that focused on drug-related murders and mostly ignored users who weren't committing violence. Kennedy's efforts proved to be yet another missed opportunity in the War on Drugs â" an experience that made clear how difficult it is for science to influence the nation's drug policy.
"If ten years ago the medical community had figured out a way to reduce the deaths from breast cancer by two-thirds, every cancer clinic in the country would have been using those techniques a year later," Kennedy says. "But when it comes to drugs and violence, there's been nothing like that."