The Relationship of Crime and Drug Use

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There is a strong relationship present between criminal activity and drug use which consistently appears within academic literature (Moore et al, 2007). Several academics have made numerous arguments that the volume of crime is linked directly to the use of drugs. Although, it must be noted that the drug use and crime relationship isn’t as simple as it seems. It is regularly linked to unemployment problems, health issues and inequalities within the socio-economic state. Additionally, the relationship between drug use and crime is not straightforward, and it cannot be extrapolated for offences occurred through a stage of concentrated drug use (Anglin and Speckart, 1998).

There are three theories that seek to explain the relationship between drugs and crime: drug use causes crime, crime causes drug use and crime and drug use are related to other factors.

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The first theory is that drug use causes crime. Goldstein (1985) initially suggested that that was three different explanations to describe the relationship between drug use and criminal activity; psychopharmacological, economic compulsion and systemic crime. Psychopharmacological theory determines that the use of specific drugs, whether it be short or long term use, will potentially result in increased offending. The second theory, economic compulsion proposes that offenders partake in crime to finance their drug habits. The final theory, systemic crime suggests that the involvement in the drug market leads to offending (Goldstein, 1985). It is argued that distributing and using illegal drugs are intrinsically linked to the occurrence of crime, particularly violent crimes (Raskin, White and Gorman, 2000). Bennett’s (1998) research supports this model as he found most offenders brought into police stations tested positive for drugs.

There are several strengths to the drug causes crime model. This model is the most regularly cited literature on the drug-crime relationship. This model is a simple theory that appeals to both sides of the drug debate. Those in favour of harsh criminal penalties will assert that it enforces the idea that if there is a crack down on drugs, the rate of crime will decrease. But also those who support drug policy reform will argue if drugs are legalised, the rate of crime will decrease, particularly systemic crime. Goldstein’s theory is used widely and still considered to be influential even with the increased criticisms of its drawbacks and barely being tested. This model has acquired evidential approval from Parker et al (1988) who identified two groups; individuals with a criminal record who offended more following drug use, and individuals without a previous record before drug use who became involved in property crime. They established that offending behaviour increased when the individual was dependent on drugs. Although, as Hammersley et al (1989) records, it is not known if these two groups are distinct because criminality is assessed on conviction rates which only constitutes for a small amount of crime committed.

However, this model does come with weaknesses. In essence, it is uni-directional and maintains the idea that drugs cause crime. It’s argued that there is inconsistencies when categorising offences, known as ‘shoehorning’, where people are forced to fit into a category or offence. This model also disregards the effects of alcohol in offences and believes all drug users are innately violent. A suggestion made by this model is that an endless drug supply or treatment for addiction would eliminate the requirement to engage in crime (Seddon, 2000). Even though, several studies highlight that prescribing methadone or heroin will lower criminal activity, but will not terminate it fully (Bennett and Wright, 1986). It is important to note that the assumption that ‘drugs-cause-crime’ is not entirely backed by experimental studies.

The ‘drug-causes-crime’ model is extracted from a fixed deterministic idea of human activity: drug dependency in addition to reduced legitimate funds unavoidably leads to the use of crime to support the costs of addiction (Seddon, 2000). Young (1992) admits that this model fails to acknowledge the complications of how “objective conditions are interpreted through the specific subcultures of groups”. Simply put, it is deterministic and based on a retreatism model of drug use taken from the sociology of Merton (1957).

The second model considers that crime causes drug use. Several studies found that for a number of drug users crime pre-dates drug use (Home Office, 1985). This led academics to believe that the involvement in crime leads to drug use instead of vice versa. It is said that participation in petty crime will get individuals into illegal networks where criminal goods are traded. These networks allows regular access to drugs and so become introduced to the use of them. So, it is argued that deviant individuals are more likely to become involved in positions where drug use is present in day to day life. Auld et al (1986) asserts that young people are not able to satisfy their basic needs due to mass unemployment and low state benefits. So, to ensure a quality of life greater than bare survival, individuals will become a part of the petty-criminal economy (Seddon, 2000). It is then through this action that individuals come into contact with drugs – buying, selling, exchanging and finally, consuming it. This is further supported by Burr (1987) who argues strong pre-existing delinquent culture makes young people more vulnerable to the use of heroin as they were capable of financing habits over long periods of time. The presence of well-established connections for ‘fencing’ illegal merchandise, could led to the introduction and spreading of heroin and cocaine use, which in turn would lead to an increase in related crimes. It can be argued that this deviant network has made criminal behaviours acceptable (Burr, 1987).

Nevertheless, there are problems with this approach. People who are drug users, become drug users before becoming criminally active (MacCoun et al, 2002) and there is a gap in evidence that suggests drug use does lead to a criminal career. Another argument is that some people who engage in crime don’t use drugs. Drug use and criminal activity are mutually reinforcing where one can introduce the other, and can be interlinked with a number of variables. However, there is evidence to suggest a number of user-offenders do not engage in crime preceding drug use (Parker and Newcombe, 1987). It is also argued that this model is based on a stereotypical image of ‘a drug user’.

The final model claims that crime and drug use are linked to other variables. This model turns down the deterministic justifications of the crime-drug relationship and alternatively believes that they are linked due to a complicated series of variables, which include emotional and cognitive elements, sub-cultural morals and familial rejection (Seddon, 2000). This model states that different arrangements and methods of drug use alters the relationship with the drug (Hammersley et al., 1989). Social, economic and family conditions can pressurize a young person to become involved in both crime and drug use (Pudney, 2002). Hammersley et al (1989) proposes that there is a interactive link between crime and drug use which is controlled by a number of “psychosocial and cultural mechanisms”. Hammersley et al (1989) insist that each behaviour is best considered as a indicator of crime which roots itself in the drug users’ private and social life. This model is supported by Edmunds et al (1998), who found when analysing arrest referral programs, 92 per cent of the cases were arrested prior to problematic drug use. They identified that as drug use increased, acquisitive crime increased. So, Edmunds et al (1998) theorised that a drug users criminal career thrives when in parallel. To put it simply, funds gained through acquisitive crimes will finance the offenders drug habits, which in turn would lock the drug user into offending.

There are a minor issues with this model as it is relatively undeveloped as of yet, however it is the most favourable as an illustrative mechanism and appears to be best fitting with existing data. However, the base for the theories and concepts of this model have not been thought out clearly (Seddon, 2000). Bean (2014) claims that if drug use and criminal activity are not linked, punishment or treatment of one will not cause a decrease in the other. So, it could be argued that this model is not effective in terms of reducing the rate of crime in drug users. A way to improve this model, as advocated by Hammersley et al (1989) is to explore a more social scientific method in attempt to connect micro and macro reasons for the drug use and crime relationship.

It is clear that there is a strong relationship between drug use and criminal activity, although it may not be as straightforward as one may think. When assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the three models, the third model displays the best understanding with the support of empirical evidence from several academics. Unlike the other two models, it rejects the simplistic arguments made and acknowledges that the relationship is linked and influenced by other variables. However, there are issues with some concepts that need to be improved for this model to become the most effective.

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The Relationship of Crime and Drug Use. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from
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