The steel gate slides open, and into the visiting room walks Harrison David, 20 years old, unshaven and slouching, wearing a putty-colored Manhattan Detention Center uniform. In keeping with prison procedure, he didn’t know who was coming to see him until just before he walked through the door. He’s polite enough to shake my hand and candid enough to tell me he’s disappointed to see me. “To be honest, I thought you were going to be some of my fraternity brothers,” he says, “bringing me some socks and underwear.”
Fraternity row isn’t his home anymore. Eight days earlier, David was a dark-haired, boyish financial-aid student who roamed the Morningside Heights campus with 5,600 other undergraduates. He was an engineering major who once talked about wanting to be, literally, a rocket scientist. Now he stands accused of being the lead offender in a campuswide drug-dealing ring, the largest operation of its kind at a local college in recent memory. In a dawn raid on December 7, NYPD officers formed bunker teams carrying battering rams and stormed the dorm rooms of David and four other students, then arrested them and hauled them downtown in front of local-news cameras. “Operation Ivy League” was said to involve five months of undercover work, including $11,000 in marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, Adderall, and LSD buys. “This is no way,” police commissioner Ray Kelly deadpanned at the press conference, “to work your way through college.”
David was the first Columbia student the police investigated, the one who inadvertently led cops to the other four, and the only one accused of selling cocaine, a higher class of felony that carries a greater likelihood of jail time. He was also the only one said to be connected to a drug supplier implicated in a violent kidnapping plot—and the last of the five to be bailed out. His father, Dave David, a cosmetic surgeon and sometime TV talking head from Massachusetts, had visited his son but hadn’t put up the money to free him. “I guess he’s doing what he thinks a dad should be doing, trying to teach me a lesson,” David says. “I tell you what. If I had a kid who was in jail, I’d bail him out first and then do whatever parenting I’d do with him.”
With his Southie mumble and scowl, David could pass as a refugee from the rougher precincts of Boston. The truth is another matter. He grew up comfortably in Wrentham, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb best known for its outlet mall. He was the oldest of six children. His parents divorced when he was 6 years old, and the children shuttled between the two houses for much of their childhood. After a year at a private boarding school, David attended the public King Philip Regional High School, in Wrentham, where he studied aerospace engineering and was president of the science honor society. Schoolwork came easily to him—he says he was one of two kids from King Philip to be accepted into an Ivy League university—but David seemed to work hardest at not being thought of as a grind. He played tennis, ran cross-country, went to parties, and smoked his share of pot (he has a marijuana-related youth offense, a felony that he pleaded down to a misdemeanor). For his speech as class salutatorian, David had to submit the text beforehand, but didn’t want to, so he wrote some nonsense and gave it to the principal, then spoke off the top of his head, ending by quoting Jimi Hendrix to a crush of applause. Three years later, Harrison is still proud of that speech.
David arrived at Columbia in the fall of 2008. He pledged Alpha Epsilon Pi, known as a Jewish frat, and skated through classes, just as he had in high school. He says he kept up a 3.2 grade-point average at the engineering school. From his dorm room, in John Jay Hall, he also quickly became known as one of the school’s more industrious pot dealers. He’d run up and down the John Jay stairs to sign buyers in. The transactions took place in his room, quickly and with a minimum of conversation. “He did what he did like a trade,” says a classmate.
Pot at Columbia is, for a certain segment of the student body, like a public utility—it’s just there. A student dealer typically finds his way to one of a handful of fairly well-known off-campus suppliers who service the school. Some of those suppliers are former Columbia students; others grew up dealing to current students elsewhere in the city; still others are slightly bigger time, dispensing large shipments of pot they get directly from Seattle or California. The students who hook up with those suppliers are prized by some not just for the air of cool that dealing can sometimes confer but for assuming the risks of obtaining pot so their classmates don’t have to. For the most part, nobody has to leave the confines of Morningside Heights. Most students who use drugs at Columbia do so recreationally, and substances harder than acid are relatively rare. If anything, the school stands out only in how highly functional the students can be despite the partying. “The difference is they’re doing homework too,” says a friend of the accused students.