Research suggests that a large proportion of crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. For example, alcohol-related crime makes up 39% of violent offences in the UK.
Why is this? The answer to that question is a complex one. It depends on factors such as the effects of different drugs, the economic situation, the areas they live in, the cost of drugs and so on.
In this blog post, we delve into the relationship between criminality and addiction. We try to suggest that simple answers – such as ‘addicts commit crimes to feed their drug habits’ – may have an element of truth, but the real explanations for the links between drug addiction and criminality are much more complicated.
When you think about drug addiction and crime, the first thing that comes to mind may be drug users stealing in order to support a habit. Indeed, rates of acquisitive crime are a lot higher among drug users than non-users.
But there are several other ways in which crime is linked to drug use and addiction. In fact, since it is illegal to sell or possess drugs in most countries, almost everything related to drugs is automatically a criminal issue.
While some may argue that drug addiction ought to be a health issue rather than a criminal one, the fact remains that you cannot talk about drugs in relation to society without talking about crime.
Here are some of the links between drug use and crime:
- It is a crime to drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In the UK the BAC (Blood Alcohol Concentration) limit for driving is 80 mg of ethanol per 100 ml of blood. If you are caught Driving Under the Influence (DUI) or Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) you can be charged with drink-driving. Those who are addicted to alcohol are much more likely to be involved in this than non-addicts
- Alcohol is also heavily linked to violent crime, as mentioned above. In particular, it is linked with domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault and murder. It’s worth noting that alcohol is not the sole reason for these crimes being committed: there are always other factors involved in crime, as we will discuss later on in this article
- Since the sale and possession of most drugs is illegal, simply being caught with drugs accounts for a large proportion of drug-related crime
- Violence between rival drug gangs in major cities is also a factor in criminal activity
Is drug addiction itself a crime?
Though the possession and sale of most drugs are illegal, it is not a crime to be addicted to substances. In fact, many would argue that addiction is a matter of health rather than criminality.
The idea that ‘all drug addicts are criminals’ is false. This would only be true if all drugs were criminalised, and that simply isn’t the case. Many addictive drugs are not criminalised, and there are many people who are addicted to those drugs.
Arguably the best example of this is alcohol. Many people would say that alcohol is a drug, and yet it is legal. It also accounts for a huge proportion of people suffering from addiction in the UK. Of those that go into treatment for drug addiction in the UK, 28% went in for alcohol addiction, behind only opiate users, at 53%.
Another example of legal drugs that can be highly addictive is over-the-counter medications. It is very easy to get hooked on prescription drugs, especially when they are more readily available than illegal alternatives.
Can addiction lead to crime?
Whilst it’s easy to establish a link between drugs and crime, due to the violent and criminal nature of the drug trade, the issue of whether addiction leads to crime is a bit more complicated.
You could argue that substance-dependent individuals are automatically more likely to commit crimes because they need money to pay for their habit. But if this is the case, you’re already assuming that someone suffering from addiction does not have the financial means to fund their habit. This may be true in many cases, but it does not hold true for every individual.
The ability to pay for drugs depends on a persons financial situation. This is an external factor. It could be argued that external factors such as these are just as influential in determining whether someone will commit a crime or not.
What other external factors are there?
Some examples include:
- Employment status
- Living conditions
- Marital status
- Mental health
Unfortunately, addiction often goes hand-in-hand with joblessness, a lack of close family, poor living conditions, poor relationships, poor mental health and poverty. This makes it very difficult to say that addiction is the main reason for someone committing a crime. Instead, crime ought to be seen as a response to a wide variety of things.
This is not to say that someone suffering from addiction is completely inculpable for their actions. We just need to see a crime in its full context.
Alcohol and crime
Why is it that alcohol abuse is so heavily linked to criminal activity? To remind you of the statistics, 1 in 5 people arrested by the police test positive for alcohol. Alcohol is involved in over 60 per cent of homicides and 50 per cent of fights and domestic assaults.
Is this just because alcohol is the most readily available drug? And are alcohol dependents involved in these crimes, or is it mainly those who drink alcohol infrequently?
One study showed that 25% of prisoners in US prisons had scored highly on tests for alcohol dependency. This suggests that alcohol-dependent individuals are heavily involved in criminal activity.
So is this just because alcohol is readily available? Or is it because of the effects of the drug?
Perhaps it is a mixture of both. Not only is alcohol very easy to procure, it is totally engrained in modern, especially Western society. This means that people are very likely to have access to it, and therefore to abuse it.
It is also a highly addictive drug. It has been argued that it is more addictive than cocaine and more damaging than any other drug.
The effects of alcohol must also be considered in its relationship with crime.
Alcohol makes you less inhibited, which may increase the chances of someone who is inebriated committing a crime. A sober person may think twice before burgling a house or hotwiring a car, whereas someone whose senses are severely impaired by alcohol may not.
Links have also been found between alcohol and aggression. This would go some way towards explaining the high rates of violent crime among those who have consumed alcohol.
Drug use and crime
Though not as strong as the link between alcohol abuse and violent crime, there is a correlation between drug use and criminal activity.
This is most likely acquisitive crime – theft, fraud, shoplifting etc – rather than violent crime.
Due to the cost of illegal drugs, many drug addicts would not be able to afford to pay for their habit without either a lucrative job or a different stream of income, perhaps from criminal activity. An addict may need between £15,000 and £30,000 a year to pay for their habit.
If it is estimated that there are around 300,000 heroin and crack cocaine users in the UK, that would suggest that a large proportion of acquisitive crime may be drug-related. Indeed, some have argued that goods stolen for this purpose may be worth around £2-2.5 billion a year.
However, it is important to keep this in context. Drug use may be involved in a lot of crime but it is not always the sole cause. For instance, a person may become addicted to drugs after already getting involved in criminal activity.
External factors may also play a part, such as feelings of social alienation, poverty, poor relationships, mental health issues and so on.
Finally, addicts are not constantly using at the same rate and may have periods where they get clean, or use a substitute drug such as methadone in the case of heroin addicts.
Drug use and prostitution
Another crime which has often been linked with drug use is prostitution. Studies have shown that a large proportion of prostitutes have a history of substance abuse.
It is unclear whether these men and women became prostitutes in order to earn money to feed a drug habit, or they became addicted to drugs after having got involved in sex work.
Just as in the other cases we have examined, the factors that may be involved in someone becoming a prostitute are often complex and may include poverty, being sexually abused, mental health problems and coercion.
Should addiction be considered a health issue rather than a criminal one?
Although the sale and possession of drugs are criminal offences, it can be argued that drug addiction is a matter of health rather than criminality.
Addiction is now understood to be a disease of the mind. No other mental illnesses are criminalised. Why should addiction be any different?
The best way to deal with addicts is to offer them treatment, not incarcerate them. Addicts are often vulnerable people who have taken a wrong turn in life. To lock someone up is not always the right solution. We need to rehabilitate people, rather than punish them for something which is out of their control.
Yes, the first time someone takes drugs it is usually their own decision. But when someone becomes addicted, they lose their agency. We need to view addicts as what they are: people suffering from a disease which they cannot escape alone.
Do alcohol and drug treatment help to prevent crime?
One major benefit to society of treating people for addiction, as opposed to punishing them, is that it is proven to reduce crime.
One government study which looked at anonymous data from various offenders in the UK found that those who completed treatment for substance abuse were considerably less likely to offend those who did not. In fact, the number of offences committed by those in treatment fell by over a third over the course of two years.
Besides the obvious benefits for the addicts involved, treatment for addiction also carries massive benefits for society, since a reduction in crime is good for everyone.
By helping someone to overcome their addiction, you give them a second chance. Without the constant craving for that next hit, ex-addicts can focus on getting their lives back on track.
The relationship between addiction and criminality is a very complex one, as this article has attempted to show. Broad generalisations such as ‘all addicts are criminals’ tend to be more unhelpful than anything.
The best way to understand crime is to look at the multitude of factors that cause people to commit criminal acts. These factors include things like mental health issues, poverty, relationships with other people and feelings of alienation.
Whilst no one is saying that addicts are blameless when it comes to crime, we still need to pay attention to the fact that addiction is a form of mental illness, which can make people do things that they would never consider doing otherwise.
Therefore, we need to show tolerance and compassion to addicts, even those who commit crimes. Harsh sentences are probably less effective than rehabilitating people since treatment does seem to reduce the rate of offending among addicts and former addicts.