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The Relationship between Drugs and Crime

Drugs: their use, misuse and connections with crime

In this dissertation I would like to argue that the study of crime and drug use is complex. There are a number of diverse factors that lead people to misuse drugs; these are a mixture of social, psychological and economic factors. Age and gender are significant statistically but insufficient research has been carried out to explore these issues fully. In this dissertation we will consider how people acquire a physical and psychological dependence on drugs.

We will look at the pressure that can be placed upon susceptible individuals by dysfunctional families and peer pressure. Other factors that will be explored are whether personality traits or hereditary factors play a significant role in drug misuse and any consequent criminal behaviour.

It is also clear that there is a correlation between crime and drug taking but again this link is not clear-cut. It will be necessary to consider if there are factors that predispose people to deviant behaviour and drug misuse or if one factor leads to another, and if so in what direction. We will consider at some length what is being done to ‘police’ drug crime and conclude that although much is being done it is a difficult and growing area, needing the intervention of specialised crime agencies, such as the Serious and Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).

We will conclude by considering that a great deal more research needs to be done to help understand this complex issue but that there are a number of areas where useful investments could be made. The first is in the provision of more skilled people to act as drugs counsellors, in order to help lower demand for drugs; the second is to co-operate with international bodies in forming policy to fight the global drugs business and co-operate internationally with enforcement agencies; the third is for enforcement agencies in this country to act in partnership with each other and outside agencies to help disrupt the supply of drugs by removing its supplier and their money and reducing demand by helping drug-users to fight their addiction. Only when all these measures are acted upon will any significant headway be made in the ‘war on drugs’.


Before we embark on our explorations, I would like to define how I will use the term drugs in this dissertation; I intend to define drugs as psychoactive drugs; this is any chemical that ‘alters perceptions and behaviour by changing conscious awareness’. However, I will exclude recreational drugs that are accepted by society, particularly alcohol. The reason for this is to enable me to achieve a tightly focused argument within the limits of the word count.

There is a great deal of research on alcohol abuse; much of it mirrors the misuse of other drugs, however, there are some significant differences, which would broaden out the argument too much. In this dissertation we will restrict ourselves to drugs that are outside of society’s approval.

The drugs we will consider in this work fall into four categories: depressants, stimulants, opiates and hallucinogens. The depressants include alcohol, barbiturates and solvents. Stimulants work by increasing the transmission of nerve impulses in the brain; they include cocaine, MDMA (better known as ‘ecstasy’), and amphetamines. The next group of drugs, opiates have been known since the time of the ancient Sumerians; in 4000BC they named the plant that produced resin from its unripe seedpods, the poppy. From this resin come the opiate drugs.

These depress neural functioning, suppress physical sensation and responses to stimulation, which is why the codeine and morphine versions of this drug are used as substantial painkillers. Hallucinogens are the final group and contain LSD, PCP and cannabis.

In this dissertation, once we have considered what leads initially to drug use and misuse, we will look at the link between drugs and crime. I have defined above what I mean by drugs, I’d now like to define what mean by crime. Such a definition is not easy to establish.

There is perceivable difference between the definition made by a research psychologist and a lawyer; one has a highly conceptualised definition, the other a legal one. In this dissertation, I will use Glen Walters definition of crime. In his book Drugs and Crime in Lifestyle Perspective, he defines it as ‘a rule breaking behaviour that, if known to legal authorities, would result in the rule breaker’s being charged with a criminal offence punishable by law’.

Size of drug problem

It is not an easy task to accurately record how many people take these forms of drugs on a regular basis. A National Survey on Drug Use and Health, undertaken in the United States in 2003, revealed that an estimated 3.7 million people had used heroin at some point in their life. It also revealed that 119,000 had used heroin in the month before the survey. It is perhaps encouraging that the British Crime Survey reveals that drug taking in this country amongst 16 to 24 years olds has decreased since 1998, although it has increased in people form 16to 59.

A United Nations report, published in 2005, estimated that 200million people, or approximately 5% of the world’s population, aged15-64, have used drugs in the last year. Whichever figure is correct, the number of people who abuse drugs is large.

In terms of the criminal side of crime, this is an increasingly difficult problem to deal with. The illegal market for drugs is immense, which attracts the attention of large organised crime groups. It is likely that dealing with this problem will be a major part of the work done by the new Serious and Organised Crime Agency. A major area that will need to be looked at is how to disrupt the flow of drugs into the country; this will be a complex undertaking. Using Cocaine as an example, the drug originates in Latin America, principally Columbia.

Its then taken first to a secondary country such as Spain, Portugal or West Africa, and finally funnelled into the UK via France, Belgium or the Netherlands. Although, Jamaica, the Caribbean Island closest to Latin America, which also has a significant immigrant community in England, provides a more direct route into this country for drugs. Clearly, this means that the Immigration and Customs and Excise departments also have an important part to play in policing this ‘industry’.

The structure of the argument

In chapter one we will look at the physical, psychological and environmental factors that lead to addiction of abusive substances. In chapter two I will consider whether there is a link between addiction and crime; we will also consider the implications of the illegal drugs market on policing. In chapter three I will discuss the prevention strategies that exist. Finally, I will conclude by explaining that although it is possible to come to some conclusions in our study, it is difficult to come to a definitive conclusion due to the amount of research material and its complex and often contradictory nature.

Chapter 1: The road to drug use and misuse


In this chapter we will consider the factors that lead to drug use and misuse. We will consider how attitudes in general concerning drug use have changed and how this has led to a greater acceptance of taking medication. We will also consider the psychological factors that could contribute to a person first falling prey to drug use.

There is evidence that socioeconomic factors may be significant and we will explore this idea; we will include a consideration of the increasingly sophisticated ‘marketing’ methods used by the sellers of illegal drugs. Finally, we will conclude that although there is a great deal of information on the subject of why people begin taking drugs we will see that it is very difficult to draw a conclusion from the information available. We cannot offer conclusions only suppositions.

Changing attitudes to drugs

People have been using drugs for a great deal longer than it has been considered a problem. Tammy Salah suggests that drug use has been prevalent since ancient times (Salah, p6). However, significant major changes have occurred in the pattern of drug taking in the last four decades. In the 1950s very few people indulged in any form of drug, other than alcohol or cigarettes, however, this situation has gradually changed until we have become a drug using culture.

A number of reasons have been suggested for this change. Some have suggested that the increase in taking drugs for medicinal purposes altered people’s general attitude towards taking drugs; as they acquired the perception that a pill could cure physical problems and mental illness, they accepted the possibility that a pill could be used to counter other problems; others advocated the idea that in the 1960sand 70s people, particularly Americans, were exploring new life-styles, many had an increased amount of leisure time and looked for new activities to fill them, one of those ways to fill the extra hours waste recreational use of drugs.

Roads to addiction

This increase in drug abuse led to problems with addiction as people acquired a physical dependence on these substances. Gradually, after taking the drug for some time, a person acquired a tolerance, so needed more and more of it to achieve the same effect. They also reached a stage where cessation of the drug in the system led to unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. At this stage they are said to have acquired physical dependency on the drug.

However, this is not the only form of dependence that can arise; it is also possible to acquire a psychological dependence. This can occur particularly if a drug is used to reduce anxiety; even though no physical dependence occurs, the feeling of being without anxiety is addictive, which makes the drug addictive for psychological reasons.

Dependence on alcohol can begin this way, the drink can acquire appositive reinforcement if it used to reduce stress, however, the more it is used the more the dependence becomes a physiological one. This is one of the most popular contemporary views of why humans self-administer potentially lethal drugs. It is believed that these chemicals activate the reinforcement system in the brain. Other natural-enforcers such as food, water, sex etc. also activate this system.

It is possible to place drug users into at least two categories. One group of drug users take drugs for the effects they have on the senses; this group has been described as ‘novelty seekers’; the other group uses drugs to help them cope with other problems, they use drugs ‘as if they are anti-anxiety or anti-depressant substances’. One could conclude that this is the explanation for the apparent plethora of contradictory information as it would be counterintuitive to suggest that the same factors lead to these two models.

Bio psychologists have done some of the most recent research into the development of an addiction. Their work is interesting because it is admix of physical and psychological scientific methods. It is important to consider their work, as it could have a significant effect on treatment and preventative programmes for the misuse of drugs. An article that appeared in the journal, Addiction, in 2001 suggests that addicts are not motivated to take drugs for the pleasure they provide, or the desire to avoid the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, but because once drugs have been used the person develops changes in the part of the brain that render the ‘rewards systems’ and it becomes hypersensitive.

These are not the parts of the brain that deal with pleasure or the euphoric effects of drugs but a subcomponent of reward; the study renamed them incentive salience or ‘wanting’. This leads the drug addict to develop compulsive behaviours in relation to drug-seeking. The researchers suggest that this sensitization leaves addicts susceptible to relapse long after they discontinue their drug use. It is also clear that some people become sensitised very quickly but others much more slowly. Another interesting aspect of this research is that the self-administration experience plays a significant part in the process, so that if the context is repeated in the future, even after drug misuse has ceased, the person will experience the compulsion to take the drug. This can happen years after the person has ceased to take drugs.

A number of interesting facts resulted from this study that could affect our understanding and treatment of drug misuse. One interesting factor is that it is not saying that drug addiction is caused by chemical changes in the brain, what it is saying is that environmental factors have an equally significant effect as pharmacological ones. This factor is important as it has an effect on how to treat addiction. Another interesting factor revealed is that the brain processes involved in addiction are those that determine wanting not pleasure.

This makes nonsense of the theory that the reinforcing factor connected to drugs is pleasure; drugs can become addictive in the absence of pleasure at taking them. This means that an unconscious motivational process can promote the act of taking a drug; this would explain why addicts, who report they are ‘miserable, that [their] life is in ruins, and that even the drug is not that great anymore’ are still ‘bewildered by the intensity of their compulsive behaviour’. However, it is interesting to note that even the authors of this study recommend caution; they accept that studies carried out on animals may not give the same results in human addicts.

A great deal of interest has been shown by researchers concerning what, if any, personality characteristics make an individual more susceptible to become addicted to drugs. No individual personality type has been shown to predispose a person to drug misuse; however, people who score highly in tests for social conformity are less apt to misuse drugs. On the other hand, those who as children were rated by their class-mates as being impulsive, inconsiderate, lacking in ambition, with poor work habits, as adults were more likely to smoke, drink alcohol or take drugs than children not described as having those characteristics.

Glen Walters concurs with this conclusion. He suggests the only positive evidence he has seen relates to some forms of early anti-social behaviour that affect a person’s future chance of abusing drugs and that this isn’t enough to provide a conclusive link. However, as already mentioned one must exercise caution concerning the conclusions reached from these studies as most of this research has been conducted on people with pre-existing problems, so one cannot be entirely certain that the characteristic did not result from the addiction rather tamper-date it.

An obvious area to consider, particularly bearing in mind that the majority of drug misuse is done by the young, is the influence of, and relationship with parents. A study by Baer and Corridor in 1974suggested that children whose parents had showed little interest in them, or had used excessive physical punishment during their early childhood, were more likely to misuse drugs. Glen Walters confirms this when he quotes studies that reveal children who suffered parental rejection, either physical or mental, are more likely to indulge in deviant behaviour, including drug abuse.

He suggests that a lack of attachment leads to an inability to fully ‘empathize with and relate to others’. Another study undertaken in 1972 revealed that people from home with conservative, traditional values were less likely to misuse drugs, than those from a more permissive and liberal home. However, it is not necessarily the parent’s values that contributed to the misuse of drugs but the potentially easier access to them. Ironically, coming from a ‘disrupted’ family (one where divorce or death has interrupted ‘traditional’ family life) does not seem to be factor in drug abuse in individuals.

Parents are not the only group to have a significant influence, person’s peers can be equally important as an encouragement to misuse. The more substances a person misuses, the more friends they are likely to have who misuse substances themselves. However, again, interpretation of this can be problematic. It is difficult to know if these people have more friends who misuse because they have influenced them, or that the explanation is that they prefer to socialise with people with ‘pastimes’ most like their own.

Walters concurs that although it appears that people are strongly influenced by their peers, it is difficult to provide evidence to confirm this conclusion. It is also important to bear in mind that although some people may be affected by the relationship with their parents (or lack of it) and influenced by their peers to act in a delinquent manner, the majority of people, under these circumstances, do not become delinquent or drug abusers, so these reasons are not sufficient in themselves to explain this anomaly.

There are many links between deprivation, social exclusion and drug misuse. Amongst the factors that predispose someone to misuse drugs: the use of legal drugs in early life, school non-attendance, unemployment, history of public care, parent criminality and substance misuse, use of illegal recreational drugs. It is difficult to ignore the fact that ‘impoverished urban areas’ have higher rates of crime and drug abuse than more affluent areas.

It almost certainly comes as no surprise that drug abuse rates are higher in areas where drugs are easily available, generally run-down urban areas. It is not difficult to believe that bleak circumstances can lead people to seek ‘escape ‘through drugs. Crime is also highest in these areas and it is easy to jump to the conclusion that these are linked; however, this link cannot be directly proved.

The age of drug users is statistically significant, they are predominantly young and male, and may be getting younger. In the Home Office survey referred to above, arrestees who were drug users were more likely to be 25 and over, however, amongst men the numbers testing positive in the 20-24 age group was seen to be increasing significantly over the period of the research. This finding is repeated in the British Crime Survey.

This demographic trend is also seen in the USA. Survey in 2003 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse recorded that in the previous year 314,000 people had used heroin; of that number the largest group were over 26, however, the same report recorded that from1995 to 2002 the number of new users varied each year from 121,000 to164,000 and of these 75% were 18 or over. More worryingly, the American survey recorded significant and stable levels of heroin abuse amongst school age children. The However, drug use seems to ‘peak’ at the age of 20.

As we have seen, most of the users of heroin in the American survey were young men. The gender balance amongst drug users in England is also predominantly male, however, things could be changing, a Home Office crime survey showed a higher proportion of women testing positive for opiates than men – 43% of women arrestees compared to 34% of men. Although the British Crime Survey suggests that the number of women taking drugs has stabilised. Tam Stewart suggests that their partners often introduce women drug users to drugs; they take them to ‘please’ their man.

It has been argued that drugs have been ‘radicalized’ and that the perception is that black men are more likely to be offenders, and, therefore, more likely to be stopped by the police, than white men. It’s true that cannabis is widely used by the Caribbean community. However, much lower proportions of black men take heroin.

The question that hasn’t been raised thus far is the question of hereditary. Glen Walters reports that a number of research papers, using data from family, twin and adoption studies, have been studied that seem to suggest that there is a genetic link in drug abuse. However, he concedes that these studies are difficult to interpret because it is difficult to take into account whether environmental influences have made a bigger impact than genetics. Salah also concludes that genetics may be a factor but that external and internal stimuli are more likely to account for drug use and abuse.

Tam Stewart challenges all these explanations of what makes someone abuse drugs. She claims, ‘Heroin respects no barriers of class, race, religion or profession. There are junkies of 14 and 40’. She concedes that the majority of drug users come from poor and inadequate backgrounds; however, the fact that there are abusers from all categories suggests that poverty and inadequate family background cannot be the whole explanation. She suggests that one of the initial factors for people who take drugs is curiosity.

Another factor that must be taken into account is that drug sellers are becoming more sophisticated in their marketing techniques and use disturbing methods of introducing people to the misuse of drugs. A ‘traditional’ method, bearing in mind drugs addictive qualities, was for street sellers to give ‘free samples’ to people who had previously never used illegal drugs. They soon became addicted to the substances and the seller had created a new buyer for his goods. However, with the increasing use of the Internet new ways of selling and marketing products have arisen. Buying a drug over the net is a much ‘easier ‘route into the drug scene, particularly for the socially shy and/or conservative middle-class teenager; the drugs are just as addictive but seem almost ‘legitimate’ when bought in the same way they buy their books and music CDs.

However, a person acquires an addiction to drugs, it is clear that when they do it is not just a personal problem but also a societal one. We’ve looked at some of the reasons that may predispose someone to use and misuse drugs. In the next chapter we will consider what, if any, links there are between drug misuse and crime.

Chapter 2: The links between drugs and crime


Numerous studies have shown a link between drug abuse and crime; there are high crime rates amongst drug abusers and high drug-use rates among offenders. In this chapter we will consider the evidence that suggests link between drug misuse and crime. We will see how there is a great deal of evidence that shows a correlation but a link showing exactly how the two factors are related is much harder to find. We will also consider the types of crime most related to this problem and consider ways that have been used to tackle the problem.

Causal links

Earlier in this dissertation we have discussed how drugs are addictive and it has been suggested that it is this addiction that leads to crime. Drug use leads to ‘compulsive drug seeking’ and use. This compulsion fuels three types of drug related crime: crimes of supply, crimes committed to obtain money to buy drugs, or where the effects of drugs lead the user to act in a criminal way, for example dangerous driving or acts of aggression.

The suggested theories to understand why people take drugs also falls into three categories: the moral model; the disease model and the behavioural model. There is statistical evidence of a link between drug use and crime. An on-going survey financed by the Home Office records the link between the misuse of drugs and offending. During the study 3,064 arrestees were interviewed and tested for drug use at eight police custody suites in England and Wales. This was repeated at the same sites two years later.

Approximately 50% of those arrested were included in the study; juveniles and those arrested for alcohol related offences were excluded. The majority of those interviewed were white males and 90% of these agreed to undergo urinalysis. Urinalysis can detect drug use over the previous few days; in this study they were tested for six types of drugs were tested: Cannabis, opiates (including heroin), cocaine(including crack), benzodiazepines, amphetamines and methadone. Clearly these percentages are significant.

A major finding of the research was that 65% of those arrested tested positive for drugs, around a third tested positive for opiates and/or Cocaine; less than 10% were positive for amphetamines and just under50% had injected heroin. Clearly this reveals a link between drugs and crime but on this alone they cannot be said to cause crime. During the interviews, however, around 90% of those who tested positive for class ‘A’ drugs reported they had committed property crimes as a result of their addiction in the last twelve months.

Research carried out in other countries show similar findings. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the US, 50% of the inmates in US prisons in 1991divulged that they had used illegal drugs in the month prior to their arrest and 30% admitted that they were under the influence of an illicit drug when they committed their offence. An interesting finding is that offenders who abuse both illegal drugs and alcohol commit more criminal activities that those who only abuse an illegal drug. It is hard not to conclude that criminal activity is linked to drug taking.

There are no clear causal links, however, between drugs and crime, despite much research on the subject that has shown that there are links between drugs and offending. A briefing paper for the Criminal Justice Social Work Development Centre for Scotland argues that ‘hanging around’ with those that do risky things, may ‘encourage or require the passage into various forms of crime to generate funds for purchasing drugs’. The paper argues that a further problem is that drug misuse leads to further financial and social difficulties; these in themselves generate more crime. A survey done amongst a Scottish young offender’s institution revealed that 95% of its inhabitants admitted taking illegal drugs. Yet again this Scottish survey does not give satisfactory explanation for this result.

It has been suggested that there are two explanations for this apparent correlation between crime and drug abuse. The first suggests that drug use adversely affects a person’s ‘mood, judgement and self-control’; the second we’ve already mentioned, that is that the high cost of drugs leads the user to commit ‘economically oriented crime’. However, even these explanations are not entirely satisfactory.

In the case of the first it is true that drugs can affect people in the way mentioned, however, not all people who take drugs experience these effects uniformly; second not everyone who takes drugs and experiences these symptoms commit crimes; therefore it is not unreasonable to argue that another factor must be involved. The second argument also holds true for the idea that the need to keep oneself supplied with drugs leads to crime.

Glenn Walters tries to resolve this conundrum with his ‘lifestyle theory of human decision’. The three ‘Cs’ defines life styles: conditions, choice and cognition. In this theory he concludes that drug abuse and criminal activity are interrelated lifestyles.

Walters believes that conditions do not cause drug abuse or crime directly but they influence behaviour by increasing or decreasing a person’s options in life. Walters concludes that choice is a very important explanation of the link between drugs and crime; criminal drug users behave in the way they do because they have made a rational choice that it is in their best interest to do so. Although he does not conclude that thesis the only explanation.

It is clear from current research that young offenders have particularly high risk for developing ‘problematic drug use’, this is partly due to their use of class ‘A’ substances and to taking drugs intravenously. A Home Office survey, published in 2004, records that injecting drugs escalates both the health risks to the user and the social problems that go along with it. Amongst the arrestees studied for this report, around 65% used heroin and these were the most persistent offenders.

Interestingly, one study in the US has suggested that there is no real correlation between drugs and crime. It is argued that because drug abuse and crime are not evenly spread across age groups, it is possible that they are not directly connected. There are a number of potential arguments for this.

Firstly, is that it is possible drugs and crime follow a similar but coincidental age progression; secondly, it is possible that that these problems arise because of an underlying pattern of general deviancy; a final explanation is that the statistics show that the supposed link is actually a manifestation of low self-control making the person more liable to contravene social norms. However, none of these explanations are verified by research. Michael Hough in his review of drug related literature for the Home Office suggests that a distinction should be made between drug users and people with a heavy dependency, it is the latter group that is most likely to be involved in crime.

Policing the problem

Regardless of the causal links between drugs and crime, it undoubtedly causes major problems for the police service, enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. A Home Office report published in 2003 on the subject of ‘Crack’ begins by pointing out that ‘uncontrolled crack markets have a propensity for violence and intimidation that affects whole communities’. The report goes on to suggest that this problem haste be dealt with on two fronts: the supply of drugs to the drug addict has to be cut off and the demand for them reduced.

During the last decade much work has been done in partnerships between the police another agencies, as these are considered the most successful ways to deal with the problem. These strategies aimed at reducing the demand for drugs will be discussed in the next chapter; in this section we will consider the response of law enforcement agencies.

It is necessary at this point to consider in more detail what types of crime is committed by people misusing drugs. Much drug-connected crimes non-violent, more concerned with acquiring the money to fund the misuser’s addiction; these would include crimes such as theft, forgery or prostitution. However, CJSW’s briefing paper suggests that drug’s misuse can lead to violent crime in one of two ways; these are, (1) the effects of the drug can lead to aggressive behaviour, and, (2) violence can be used when committing the acquisitive crimes mentioned above.

The paper makes it clear that these links are very much dependent on what type of drug is being abused. A study from the United States suggests that cocaine, particularly in the form of crack, can lead to violence, as can the use of barbiturates and amphetamines. However, overwhelming evidence suggests that the mostly likely addictive substance that will lead to violent outbursts from the abuser is alcohol.

The area that would produce the best ‘return for money’ would be to stop the arrival of drugs into the country in the first place. The raw ingredients for most traditional drugs are not produced in this country; therefore, they have to be imported from abroad. Increasingly, the enforcement agencies in this country are assisting the international fight against drugs. Government is also helping address these issues, offering to help disrupt the opium harvest in countries like Afghanistan.

The new SOCA has announced plans to have agents stationed abroad to assist in this disruption. Clearly, this is a major issue that requires serious measures. Much of the response to drug motivated crime has been met with moral outrage and dealt with accordingly; we will look at this in more depth later in the dissertation.

The drugs industry is large and profitable, which is what makes it necessary to respond to this problem from a number of different appropriate directions. An article in the Economist published in 2001,states that ‘if only it were legitimate, there would be much to admire

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