Research carried out by the Criminal Policy Research Unit at Southbank University indicates that whilst police offensives against crack dealers netted a large number of arrests, it did little to hinder crime associated with the crack-cocaine market.
‘Mounted in two phases of two and six weeks in the winter of 2000/2001, Operation Crackdown netted over 1600 arrests from concentrated ‘sting’ or ‘test’ purchases and during raids on scores of crack houses and dozens of street drug markets...
A priority was to reduce street crime. Reported robberies and burglaries near the operation sites yielded no indication that this had occurred. Local police agreed, with the exception of areas where street robberies were strongly linked to adult users of crack houses. Where juveniles were the main offenders some police felt that the diversion of officers to Crackdown had allowed an increase in street robberies.’
The study goes on to note that crack users, police and community service staff agreed that the operation did not make buying drugs harder, or increase the prices. There is also evidence that crack houses merely moved to different areas.
Research into a separate crackdown in London’s Kings Cross backs this argument up. Evidence suggests that the impacts of the crackdown were transitory and dealing merely moved to near-by streets. Further studies in Manchester and the US found that drug dealers tend to be some of the most desperate and deprived people, therefore threats of harsh prison sentences have little impact.
The Operation Crackdown study also found that police were concerned that
‘Police said the centrally timetabled crackdown had distorted normal anti-drug enforcement and could only be mounted by drafting in less experienced staff, reducing effectiveness. They also agreed that Crackdown had diverted attention from potentially more effective ways of tackling drug markets. A major limitation in the operation’s ability to dent crack dealing was that most crack purchases are arranged over mobile phones rather than in street markets or crack houses.’
The researchers interviewed a large number of heroin and crack users after Operation Crackdown ended. Almost 1 in 5 said they felt that crack had actually become easier to buy since the start of the operation.
Not explored in the research is that more than just being ineffective (or having marginal/short term impacts), enforcement initiatives can actually make matters worse. New turf wars can be precipitated, and new dealers or gangs that appear to fill a void left from a major crackdown can impose themselves with increased levels of violence to establish their territory. They may well be unknown to user populations and police causing additional difficulties and tensions. Sanho Tree of the Washington-based think tank Institute for Policy Studies has also argued on this blog that enforcement can create a Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ effect, where only the most ruthless, cunning or violent within the criminal market will prosper.
In the UK Government’s recently launched Drugs Strategy much is made of the claim that over 1,000 crack houses have been closed since 2003. However, if as the above mentioned research suggests, those houses have merely moved somewhere else then there's little point bragging about numbers; it is just more of the familiar Home Office misdirection. The fact remains that crack was not a major problem in 1997, and it is now - despite the enourmous policing resources put into attempts to eliminate it.
After the War on Drugs, Tools for the Debate (see p.41 Talking about Crack)
Controlling illegal stimulants; a regulated market model Mark Haden in the Harm Reduction Journal
How enforcing prohibition creates street crime