WHILE illegal drugs have spawned higher levels of violence in a number of big US cities, nowhere has it produced a more dramatic increase in the murder rate than right here in the nation's capital. The number killed has continued to rise in recent months, despite a well-publicized Bush administration program to make Washington a model for nationwide antidrug efforts.
Since 1985, when law enforcement officials say highly addictive ``crack'' cocaine was first introduced in the metropolitan area, the homicide rate has more than doubled in the district.
In Washington, the total number murdered during 1989 recently reached 404; in all of last year 369 people were murdered. By contrast, in 1985, there were 147 murders in the district. `Crack' not the sole factor
But while officials cite evidence associating the rising number of murders with the influx of crack, they are unable to explain why other major cities in which the drug has made inroads have not experienced similarly explosive murder rates.
In Los Angeles, where crack first appeared in 1984, and which has a history of drug-related violence, the murder toll has fluctuated during the past few years. Although the city's total for 1989 could exceed last year's by as much as 20 percent, the rate fell substantially between 1986 and 1988. In New York, another metropolis where crack is prevalent, the rate has increased steadily since 1985 - by nearly 35 percent. But the rise in both cities is overshadowed by the more than 170 percent increase in the murder rate in Washington since 1985.
``I don't think there is any other major city in the ballpark of Washington,'' said Colin Loftin, a University of Maryland criminologist who recently analyzed metropolitan crime statistics spanning a period of 14 years. ``A change of that magnitude in the murder rate is extremely rare,'' he said.
Several theories have been advanced to explain the link between drugs and murder in Washington. One of the more intriguing comes from James Fyfe, a former policeman, who says Washington is at a peculiar disadvantage, compared with other major cities, because it has little history of organized crime.
``A city like Chicago has a long tradition of mob-style organized crime, but it also has well-organized street gangs,'' Mr. Fyfe says. Such cities generally have fewer battles over drug turf, he says. Yet turf battles are precisely the kind of dispute that has led to a large percentage of Washington's murders, says Fyfe, a criminologist teaching at American University. Free-form crime scene
As an example of the more fluid environment in Washington, Fyfe points to the rapid climb in the drug business allegedly achieved by 24-year-old Rayful Edmond III. Federal prosecutors say Mr. Edmond ran the largest crack distribution network in the district. ``You don't get to the top that quickly in a better organized gang system,'' Fyfe says.
In addition, although Edmond's alleged network may have been responsible for as much as 30 percent of the cocaine sold in the district, his arrest seems to have done little to reduce the drug trade, according to law enforcement officials. ``At this point, we just don't know how many people have filled the void,'' says Drug Enforcement Administration agent Mario Perez. Edmond is currently one of several defendants in a long-running trial in federal court here.
Meanwhile, the Bush administration has met with mixed results in its efforts to reduce the level of drug-related violence, announced with much fanfare last April. David Tell, an aide to national drug policy director William Bennett, acknowledged that while the project has provided more drug agents and prosecutors, it has been beset with bureaucratic snafus.
Among other difficulties, the federal government has been unable to expand available prison space in the area - a centerpiece of the program - because local officials cannot agree on acceptable sites for new facilities, Mr. Tell says.
Critics charge the plan has had little impact because it is too heavily focused on a law enforcement approach to the crisis.
``It has been a colossal failure,'' says Rep. Charles Rangel (D) of New York, chairman of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control. According to Mr. Rangel, the administration has missed an opportunity ``to make a laboratory out of Washington to find out what makes young people chemically dependent.''