Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Investigating the drug-crime link

A correlation between drug use and crime can hardly be denied. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS), National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) and Home Office in the UK all report high rates of positive drug tests among arestees. For example, DHSS reported in 1997 that arestees tested positive for drugs at rates ranging from 42.5% in Anchorage, Alaska to 78.7% in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Yet correlation is not proof of a relationship between these variables, and certainly not enough to wage a “war on drugs”. So there are three basic arguments policy-makers have used to establish a causal relationship between drugs and crime:

- that drugs have a pharmacological influence on its user, causing aggressiveness and violent crime
- that drugs cause a dependency and need for financial funding satisfied through the commission of crime
- that the illicit drug trade itself generates violent crime.

Pharmacological influence

Evidence of crime based on the effects of illegal substances is surprisingly shaky. The DHHS, Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) and NCJRS gather this evidence in part through inmate self-reporting, where subjects are asked if they were under the influence of drugs at the time of their offense. In one 2004 study, 39% of state inmates guilty of a property offense reported committing their offense under the influence of drugs. In addition, 24% of violent offenders in federal prison reported the same. BJS and NCJRS noted that many victims of violent offenses report that their offender appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. The 2005 NCVS found that 27% of victims believed their attacker was on drugs or intoxicated.

Interestingly, all of this evidence is correlative and says nothing about the reason for the crimes in question. To conclude that drugs were responsible would requre that we assume the offender was not motivated to commit the crime prior to the drug use. More importantly, it requires that we assume the drugs are capable of generating violent impulses, which is begging the question. The fact that alcohol is often included in surveys to obtain larger numbers also does not speak well for this causal explanation. Stevens, Trace, & Bewley-Taylor note that although cocaine is often linked to aggression and heroin to property crime, more crime involves alcohol. In a Canadian survey, 40-50% of crime was attributed by inmates to either alcohol or illicit drugs: 10-15% to illicit drugs only, 15-20% to alcohol only, and 10-20% to both alcohol and illicit drugs. They also mention that in one study of 22 cities in the US, no link was found between levels of heroin or crack use among arrestees and crime rates.

On “supporting the habit”

DHHS, BJSS, NCJRS as well as the EMCDDA used inmate feedback to determine whether they had committed their offense to buy drugs, supporting the “economic-compulsive” theory. For example, NCJRS cited one study in which 27% of state and federal inmates incarcerated for robbery and 30-32% of those for burglarly reported they committed their offense to support their drug habit. The Home Office survey was less specific, asking inmates if they perceived a connection between their offense and their drug use. However the results of these surveys is suspect, and not simply because criminals may be lying to provide more sympathetic excuses for their crimes.

Benson, for example, argues that illicit drug use in young adults is associated with higher wages. In a 1986 survey, almost 50% of regular users reported having a full-time job in the previous year. Also, according to a BJS 1989 survey, 65.6% of daily users had wages and salaries as a source of income. Benson also criticizes the implication that drug use means drug dependency. In one survey of cocaine users over 25, only 1 in 11 “lifetime” users reported use in the last month. He noted that heroin users abstain for substantial periods of time, and that pharmacologists describe heroin withdrawal as a “bad case of one week flu”. It may be the case that property offenders are often addicted to drugs, but the drugs themselves do not appear to lead automatically to addiction, let alone to crime supporting such addiction.

Illicit drug trade

The most curious causal link used by government regards the black market drug trade, since it would seem to indict the “war on drugs” itself. In a 1988 study of New York City homicides, 74% were associated with the illicit drug trade. DHHS suggested that violence may be generated through several factors: competition for drug market, disputes and rip-offs in illegal market, and tendency toward violence of those who participate in drug trafficking generate violent crime. The NCJRS report, in fact, explores the possibility that violence in the drug market is caused by its illicit nature. The authors suggest that system violence is caused by a combination of factors, including the value of the drug being traded, the greater risk of enforcement by police, and the increased violence and aggressiveness of users. Because illicit markets are not protected by property rights, no contracts are enforceable except through threat of violence. The crack market, they argue, could be associated with violence because of the special risk of dealing in the drug given its high value and risk of punishment.

Problem with temporal ordering

In order for drug use to be a cause of crime, it must be shown to occur before the crimes it causes. Yet this is more often not the case. Urbis Keys Young find that criminal behavior most often precedes drug use. According to a DUCO study 54% of inmates reported offenses occurred before drugs, vs. 17% reporting that drugs started first and 29% that they started at the same time. Benson also contests the claim that drug use precedes other offenses. According to a BJS survey of prison inmates found that about half of those who used a major drug and three-fifths of those who used a major drug regularly, did so after a nondrug crime. More than half of jail inmates who reported being a regular user said their first crime was an average of two years before drug use.


I won’t argue here that drugs and crime are unrelated. Drugs may not cause crime, but that does not discount other possible relationships. Clearly drug use and crime are highly compatible activities, or they would not occur together so frequently. Yet current research seems to focus either on proving the government’s case, or disproving it. I am not familiar with the kind of research I would need to draw serious alternative conclusions. So for the time being, I will pose a few thoughts and questions for follow-up:

- In what ways might the high of drug use be similar to the high of crime? It is reasonable to expect that an offender will seek activities that satisfy a common psychological craving. Also, could the escape of drug use be a method to avoid dealing with the consequences of criminal behavior?

- The illicit nature of the drug trade means that some criminals (“pushers”) may be drawn not by drug use but by the thrill of the criminal market itself and illegal income.

- What is the role of gang activity on drug use?

Although criminalization has strengthened the correlation between drugs and crime, even after legalization there could be persistent associations – as is the case with alcohol and crime. Ultimately the issue comes down to understanding the criminal lifestyle, seeking integrated explanations for their behaviors.

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