A strong correlation between the use of drugs, defined by Bennett (2005: 2) as any ‘substance usually taken for therapeutic purposes’, and criminal behaviour has been clearly established by much research investigating the drug-crime connection (Harrison and Gfroerer, 1992, French et al, 2000,Yacoubian and Krane, 1998). Recently the ‘New English and Welsh Arrestee drug abuse monitoring Programme (NEW-ADAM) found amongst many other relevant findings that 69% of urine samples taken from arrestees as part of the study tested positive for one or more illegal drug and 36% tested positive for two or more such substances (Bennett and Holloway, 2004).

The NEWADAM programme and other findings reiterate a statistical association between drugs and crime at least, whereby when you find evidence of one variable occurring (crime or drug use, in this instance), you normally find evidence of the other occurring also (Kenny, 1979, as cited in Bennett, 2005).

It would not be correct though, to claim, that all drug users are criminals and among those drug users who do offend, they may not do so because of the drugs they take. It is therefore difficult to determine an adequate causal relationship between drug use and crime.

Kenny (1979, as cited in Bennett, 2005) notes that a causal relationship involves a cause and an effect and drug use would only cause crime if crime were one of the effects of drug use. This criterion for establishing a causal connection is applied to the drug-crime link through numerous models which vary between authors but there are four most common models which White (1990) describes as the ‘drugs-use-causes-crime’ model, the ‘crime-causesdrug- use’ model, the ‘reciprocal’ model and the ‘common cause’ model. These competing models and their associated theories will be evaluated within this essay in an attempt to disentangle the complex drug-crime connection, which government policy such as the recent Home Office (2008) drug strategy,‘Drugs: protecting families and communities’ already acknowledges, and establish to what extent drug use does cause crime according to them. The first model, that suggests drug use leads to crime, proposes this is the case for a number of convincing reasons including; the effects of drugs on the mind and body leading to criminal activities being undertaken, crime resulting from drug use in order to support their drug habit and crime occurring out of other associations within the drugs marketplace (Bennett, 2005). This model is supported by three broad categories of explanation termed by Goldstein (1985) as the ‘tripartite framework’ including; psychopharmacological explanations, economic-compulsive explanations and systematic or druglifestyle explanations.

Psychopharmacological accounts of drug use causing crime focus on ‘the way which the chemical properties of drugs interact with the human organism to produce specific behavioural outcomes’ (Bennett, 2005: 80). Goode (1997) supports this view by noting that when users take some specific drugs they can become irritable, excitable, impatient and irrational which can increase the likelihood of them engaging in criminal activity. Psychopharmacological explanations of the link between drug use and crime tend to focus on the connection between alcohol and violent crime in particular as laboratory studies regularly establish that acute intoxication by alcohol is linked to violent behaviour (White and Gorman, 2000). However, psychopharmacological explanations also claim there are several other ways in which psychopharmacological processes might lead to lead to crime after drugs are taken, and it is noted in particular that the prolonged intoxication of any drug may also contribute to subsequent aggression and crime due to sleep deprivation or nutritional defects for example (Bennett, 2005). Brochu (1994, as cited in Bennett, 2005) also notes that ‘the association between drug use and violence could be ascribed to disinhibition, whereby intoxication with a psychoactive substance subdues internal restraints and gives free rein to socially repressed criminal tendencies’ (Bennett, 2005: 81), as Klee (1997) demonstrates through a quote included as part of their study focussing on the connection between amphetamine use and criminal behaviour, when one respondent explained that ‘[amphetamines] give you guts…it’s as though everything’s yours’ (1997:59).

Aside from the direct psychopharmacological explanations that involve no liaising factors, some also recognise the way in which drug use can cause crime indirectly, requiring one or more external variable to complete the causal process and most psychopharmacological effects of drugs are likely to function this way. The external variables could involve the social or environmental elements of the situation in which the drug use occurs (Parker and Auerhahn, 1998 as cited in Bennett, 2005), and White and Gorman (2000) argue that the link between drugs and crime can also be affected by the drug user’s characteristics, and the characteristics of the drug, or drugs, being taken. A less widespread psychopharmacological connection that links drug use to crime suggests that crime could also be caused by the psychopharmacological effects of drug use on the victims of crime as well as the perpetrator, and research that indicates relatively high frequencies of alcohol consumption among rape victims provides solid evidence for this (Goldstein, 1985).

Although psychopharmacological explanations should receive strong support in a causal rationalization between drugs and violent crime, in the case of tranquilizing drugs in particular, laboratory studies indicate that a use of marijuana, heroin, opiates and amphetamines can have the opposite effect, and it has been established that in moderate measures, when under the influence, users temporarily control aggression and violence (White and Gorman, 2000). Ultimately the intoxicating effects of most drugs still accounts for small amounts of drug related violent crime (Bennett, 2005), leading the psychopharmacological model to be more useful in explaining the causal
relationship between alcohol and violence rather than drugs and crime generally. In essence psychopharmacological crimes are emotionally driven, but these emotional aspects often merge with economic issues when addicts begin to crave the drug.

Economic explanations present a strong argument that drug use can cause crime, especially concerning habitual drug use (involving heroin, crack and cocaine) whereby the user commits income generating crime (such as fraud or prostitution) in order to fund their costly habit, they are dependent on. The most widespread of the economic models is referred to as the ‘enslavement’ model (Goldstein, 1985) which describes how addicts become ‘enslaved’, unable to control their use of the drug and incapable of supporting their habit by working in a legitimate job, with few of these users holding the suitable skills needed in order to obtain a job anyway (Quinn and Sneed, 2008), and consequently they must commit crime to finance their habit. This is reiterated in the interviews of incoming prisoners in Lo and Stephens study (2002) when
72.7% admitted to committing crime in order to obtain drugs for their own use. Crime levels are also agitated due to a fact that many users consume multiple types of drugs as Leri et al (2003, as cited in Bennett, 2005) illustrate in their example that opioid addicts sometimes use amphetamines to maintain their activity level needed to ‘hustle’ the necessary funds to pay for their original opioid habit.

Because the economic necessity model is based on the idea that drug users will seek to commit crimes to pay for their drug use, most writers describe the connection between drug use and various forms of property crime in particular, such as shoplifting (Bennett, 2000), but there is a growing body of literature linking drug use and violent crime detailing users who are committing street robberies. Committing a street robbery holds the advantages of being easily committed at night (where as residential burglaries might prove difficult as properties may be occupied) and providing instant cash that they can use to exchange for drugs immediately (Bennett, 2005).

Although Goldstein (1985) states that most heroin users would avoid violent crimes because of their dangerous nature and the threat of imprisonment if caught, which would result with them withdrawing from the drug they crave in a prison cell.

Despite the assumptions it makes the economic model does not intend to be deterministic and it does allow for the possibility that in some circumstances neither habitual drug use nor economic necessity would predictably lead to crime. It should be noted that not all users support their habits through crime, with some preferring to take a less expensive substitute or use less and that not all heroin or crack users are pathologically addicted (Bennett, 2005). Preble and Casey (1969, as cited in Bennett, 2005) also note the important use of money borrowed from friends and family, as an alternative way to fund a drug habit. Simpson (2003) also discovered from his research of recreational drug use, that most of it is funded through lawful means such as pocket-money and part-time earnings in the case of adolescents and that any participation in crime by these recreational users was frequently impulsive and more about ‘having a laugh’ than raising revenue for their habit. Nevertheless, any economic impulse exasperated by a user’s habit whether dependant or not will always occur in the broader social context of the user, which is often controlled by the norms of the underworld, prompting a third account claiming that drug use causes crime due to this ‘drug-lifestyle’. The ‘drug-lifestyle’, or systematic, explanation views crime as a natural part of the broader drug lifestyle, Goldstein (1985) points out for example that the system of drug distribution is inherently allied with violent crime, involving
disputes over territory between rival dealers and the robbery of drug dealers.

Apart from the focus on the violence involved in drug dealing, a wider link between drug use and criminality advocates that drug use and crime are both common features of a deviant lifestyle generally and drug users will always be exposed to situations that promote crime. Although there is some inconsistency in such embroilment resulting from the users level of drug use and the drug they are using, with a cannabis or steroids user probably being less likely to entail criminal involvement compared with a heroin user (Bennett, 2005), but simply, it is unlikely that someone could be a drug user without facing the prospect of becoming involved with other criminal activities.
While there are many theories sustaining that drug use causes crime, far fewer acknowledge that crime can in fact cause drug use, but the second ‘crime-causes-drug-use’ model provides sound evidence for such a scenario, and the theories which support this claim can be divided into roughly similar groups as explained previously; psychopharmacological explanations, economic explanations and ‘criminal lifestyle’ explanations. One common explanation linked to the psychopharmacological effects of drugs is that drugs can be used as part of a celebration of a successful crime in the same way that a people use alcohol to celebrate a birthday for example. Wright and Decker (1997, as cited in Bennett, 2005) illustrate this through their study of street robbers in St Louis, Missouri who noted that whilst the most important motivation to commit street robbery was a need for money, one of the products of this money was the purchase of drugs to ‘keep the party going’. Although Lo and Stephens (2002) point out that the incoming prisoners they interviewed as part of their study stated that drug use undertaken after committing a crime was only related to their bodies need for the addictive drug rather than a celebration of their criminal activities.

Another common psychopharmacological link explained by commentators between committing crime and then using drugs is the instrumental use of drugs to assist the commission of crime. An offender may need drugs to give them the courage to carry out a planned crime (Bennett, 2005) and although the drug use will go before the criminal activity in this case the decision to commit an offence has come first with the decision to take drugs following, and crime still ultimately causing drug use. Brochu (2001, as cited in Bennett, 2005) also explains that individuals who have anti-social indispositions may use drugs in order to express their aggressive predispositions through these supposedly socially adequate means, an example of this being the use of alcohol by ‘football hooligans’ before a match which they had already decided
would end in a fight (Bennett, 2005).

In an opposite manner to how the ‘drug-use-causes-crime’ model that claims crime takes place due to a lack of funds to support the users drug habit, economic explanations that claim crime precedes drug taking centres around the idea that the criminal activity engaged in leaves the offender with additional funds which they use to buy drugs. The NEW-ADAM project reported that some of the offenders studied claimed that their drug use and offending were connected only because drugs were one of the things that happened to be bought with their money obtained through crime (Bennett and Holloway, 2004), and this is made easier as they are normally placed within an environment that supports this use, an idea that is expanded on through the ‘criminal lifestyle’ explanation.

The environments within which crime is committed will usually support the idea of using drugs and criminal lifestyle explanations are based on this view that drug use is a systematic part of the criminal lifestyle (in contrast to views expressed in the ‘drug-use-causes-crime’ model that claims crime is a systematic part of the drugs lifestyle). A variation on this argument claims that some offenders take drugs to excuse their criminal behaviour, with many arrested or incarcerated offenders reporting they committed their offenses to fund a drug habit, although this may be a reality for some it could of course be a suitable validation for their anti-social activities for others (Bennett, 2005).

The ‘Age-of-onset’ studies (Byqvist, 1999, McCoy et al, 1995 and Inciardi and Pottieger, 1986, as cited in Bennett, 2005) help to clarify the trouble in determining whether the onset of drug use is caused by crime or vice versa, as depicted in the ‘crime-causes-drug-use’ and ‘drug-use-causes-crime models’. The majority of these studies report that criminal behaviour precedes the onset of harder drug use (such as heroin or crack) which lends support to the notion that crime causes drug use, but the majority of these studies also showed that recreational drug use did precede the onset of criminal behaviour which lends support to the idea that drug use causes crime. The two sets of findings make them appear to be in opposition but it is possible that neither connection is causal which ‘changes over time studies’ (Hanlon et al, 1990
and Ball et al, 1981, as cited in Bennett, 2005) provide evidence for by reporting that increases in drug use are associated with increases in crime and, to a more limited extent that increases in crime are associated with increases in drug use.

The first two models are the most simple to understand and this appeal is noted by their supporters who also point out that some government policies and programmes have been developed on the basis of these models like the Home Office’s Drug Interventions Programme (DIP) that offers offenders whose crimes are drug-related ‘the support they need to kick the habit’ (Home Office, n.d). Due to this simplicity though, these models often fail, with some exceptions, to distinguish between direct and indirect causal relationships. A direct relationship being one where drug use leads straight to crime with no intervening variables and an indirect relationship being one in which drug use does cause crime via an intervening variant (Bennett, 2005). The partial ignorance of this conceptual complexity makes it difficult for these two models
to be taken at face value when describing the intricate drug-crime connection and the remaining ‘reciprocal’ and ‘common cause’ models attempt to overcome this.

The third, more complex, ‘reciprocal’ model could be accused of not being an additional model at all, rather a rewording of the first two models, as it suggests the relationship between drug use and crime is bi-directional, in other words, drug use sometimes causes crime and crime sometimes causes drug use (Bennett, 2005). Menard et al (2001) counter-argue that this model is in fact distinctive because the bi-directional process is in itself causal and mutually strengthening as ‘illegal behaviour might lead to the initiation of drug use and serious drug use might lead to the continuity of illegal behaviour’ (Bennett, 2005: 77). Some writers have taken this further and implied a causal link within this model like White and Gorman (2000) who describe how an opportunity and need to commit a crime justify the direction of the causal
relationship, for example, an addict could come across an opportunity to commit a robbery and then spend the money obtained through this act on drugs, not out of desire but through normal consumer expenditure, and equally when the addicts need for drugs is great they might carry out a burglary solely to acquire money to buy drugs.

Some researchers have noted how the direction of this causal relationship changes determined by the point the user is at in their addiction career with Faupel and Klockars (1987) extending the idea of variations in the drug crime connection over time by looking at the relationship over different phases of the drug-using career, claiming that the when a user is in the ‘occasional user’ phase, drug use and crime are not connected but by the time the user is a ‘street addict’ drug use will indeed cause crime.

The fourth, ‘common cause’ model, suggests that both drug use and crime are not caused by each other but by a third, ‘common’ variable which some literature suggests means this is a spurious model and that it should be treated as a rival hypothesis (Bennett, 2005), but nevertheless it convincingly explains that substance use and delinquency share several common predictors and that specific individual factors determine which users specialise in each behaviour. These common causes can be grouped together in three broad categories including psychological, social and environmental factors.

Psychological accounts explain how similar factors relating to the mind and behaviour of individuals can cause both drug use and crime without having a direct causal link but rather sharing common causes such as genetic or temperamental traits that will compel certain individuals to commit crime and use drugs, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990, as cited in Bennett, 2005), for example, assert that crime does not cause drug use and drug use does not cause crime but that low esteem causes both, and Goode (1997) believes that the type of person who uses psychoactive substances will also be the type of person to commit crime due to drugs and crime both providing, immediate and certain pleasures that will satisfy a self-indulgent desire for risk, excitement and danger.

Social explanations concern the way in which social relationships can influence both drug use and criminal activity in the same way. Elliot et al (1989, as cited in Bennett, 2005) point out that peer pressure can play a significant role in the decision to commit crime and use drugs as the extent of involvement with friends who are engaged in criminal behaviour, or who use drugs, can play a big part in this decision-making process. In fact, White (1990) purports that ‘peer pressure influences are the best predictors of delinquency and drug use’ (1990: 240).

Environmental accounts explain how both the physical environment and situational factors can operate to encourage the commission of drug use and specific offences. Probably the most common-cause theories of the links between drug use and crime is the social disorganisation one developed by the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s (Shaw and McKay, 1942) that has been applied by White and Goreman (2000) who argue that the rates of violent crime and contact with drugs are higher in densely populated, racially segregated and poorer neighbourhoods. On a smaller scale it is also likely that crime and drug use in situations where people consume alcohol,
such as bars are likely to be high (Fagan, 1993, as cited in Bennett, 2005). An element that all the explanations mentioned so far fail to include and could cause threats to the validity of any evidence they use to back up their claims is the extent to which people are willing to admit deviance. ‘People who admit to, or are willing to discuss, drug use of any kind are more likely to report drug use of other kinds’ (Hammersely, 2008: 73) as well as other offending. It is also important to remember that what people say they do in a survey and what they practise can be very different things. Even more importantly, there is some evidence to suggest that drug use and offending are becoming increasingly disassociated in modern times, smoking cannabis for example is becoming more normal behaviour and people are starting to separate it from
the use of other types of drugs (Hammersley, 2008), and all of these discrepancies could lead to the explanations concluded from their evidence gathered being erroneous in some way. It is also unclear in some of the literature whether the theories they describe are attempting to explain the onset or the intensification of drug use which can affect how the link between drugs and crime is evaluated as well as the measures of drug use and crime used, with some studies tending to lump all illicit drugs together in their evaluations, and others distinguishing between recreational and habitual drug usage for example. The fact that criminal behaviour can vary substantially in its motivations and nature is also left out of some of the explanations. Bennett (2005) points out that the ‘common cause’ model in particular fails to differentiate between distal causes, events occurring in the past and proximal causes, events occurring in the situation of the behaviour, regularly.

Through statistical association it is clear that drug use is high among offender populations and the prima facie evidence for the links between drug use and crime are clear but we should be wary when trying to establish a sufficient causal link, implying that drug users are compelled in some way to commit crimes as they can often appear simplistic and deterministic. There is certainly an abundance of theories that imply a connection between drugs and crime whether it be spurious or causal and because of this wealth of conflicting and opposing positions it becomes difficult to make sense of them in order to determine to what extent drug use does cause crime.

Drug users are not a homogeneous group and different users take different causal paths that will specify to what extent drugs cause them to commit crime, meaning more than a uni-directional approach is necessary to determine a causal connection between drugs and crime. However as this essay has shown, there are many common elements among some drug users that could cause them to commit crime whether being because of the pharmacological qualities of the drugs, or mix of drugs, they have taken, increasing their chances of becoming aggressive, their economic needs, forcing them to commit property crimes in order to fund their drug habit, or the drug lifestyles they emerge themselves within, encouraging them to commit other crimes, and most significantly, both drug and crime careers are complex, change over time and are affected by; the types of drugs being used, and psychological, social and environmental factors, making drug users’ propensity to cause crime extremely individual. It is most likely that a mixture of certain biopsychological factors predispose some individuals to commit crime, and when the ‘common causes’ that make persons more likely to commit crime are present in a drug user, as well as the age of the user being an important determinant, with substance abuse and crime appearing to be more closely related in adolescence than adulthood (Simpson, 2003), the chances of criminal behaviour resulting are increased.

The obstacle to overcome the difficulties in making a determination as to what extent drugs do cause crime is the incorporation of these distinct models into a comprehensive theory of the drugs-crime connection that focuses on the details of this intricate relationship so that it can be determined under what circumstances one model will apply to the drug user or criminal and when another type of explanation is relevant.


  1. Bennett, T (2005) Understanding drugs, alcohol and crime, Maidendead: Open University Press.
  2. Bennett, T. (2000) Drugs and Crime: The Results of the Second Developmental Stage of the NEW-ADAM Programme, Home Office Research Study #205. London: Home Office.
  3. Bennett, T. and Holloway, K. (2004) Drug Use and Offending: Summary Results of the First Two Years of the NEW-ADAM Programme, Findings 179, London: Home Office.
  4. Faupel, C.E. and Klockars, C.B. (1987) ‘Drug-crime connections: elaborations from the life histories of hard core heroin addicts’, Social Problems, 34: 54-68.
  5. French, M.T., McGeary, K.A., Chitwood, D.D. et al. (2000) ‘Chronic drug use and crime’, Substance Abuse, 21(2): 95-109.
  6. Goldstein, P.J. (1985) ‘The drugs/violence nexus: a tripartite conceptual framework’, Journal of Drug Issues, 39: 143-74.
  7. Goode, E. (1997) Between Politics and Reason. New York: St Martin’s Press.
  8. Hammersley, R. (2008) Drugs and Crime: Theories and Practices, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  9. Harrison, L.D. and Gfroerer, J. (1992) ‘The intersection of drug use and criminal behavior: results from the national household survey on drug abuse’, Crime and Delinquency, 38(4): 422-43.
  10. Home Office (n.d) Drug Interventions Programme (DIP) (n.d), (accessed 10th May 2009).
  11. Hughes, R., Lart, R. and Higate, P. (eds) (2006) Drugs: Policy and Politics, Maidenhead: Open University Press.
  12. Klee, H. (1997) Amphetamine Use: International Perspectives on Current Trends. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic.
  13. Leri, F., Bruneau, J. and Stewart, J. (2003) Understanding polydrug use: review of heroin and cocaine co-use, Addiction, 98(1): 7-22.
  14. Lo, C. and Stephens, R. (2002) ‘The role of drugs in crime: Insights from a group of incoming prisoners’, Substance and Misuse, 37(1): 121-131.
  15. Quinn, J. F. and Sneed, Z. (2008) ‘Drugs and Crime: An empirically Based, Interdisciplinary Model’ Journal of Teaching in the Addictions, 7(1): 16-30.
  16. Shaw, C. and McKay, H. (1942) Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  17. Student Number: 060574064, CR2012 Summative Assignment (Question 3)
  18. Simpson, M. (2003) ‘The relationship between drug use and crime: a puzzle inside an enigma’ International Journal of drug policy, 14(4): 307-319.
  19. White, H.R. (1990) The drug-use-delinquency connection in adolescence, in R. Weisheit (ed.) Drugs, Crime, and Criminal Justice. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson Publishing Co.
  20. White, H.R. and Gorman, D.M. (2000) Dynamics of the drug-crime relationship, Criminal Justice, 1: 151-218.
  21. Yacoubian, G.S. and Kane, R.J. (1998) Identifying a drug use typology of Philadelphia arrestees: a cluster analysis, Journal of Drug Issues, 28(2): 559-74.