Drugs and Crime

The published literature is awash with debate about whether drugs cause crime. Scholars are presented with a vexing series of facts. Large numbers, sometimes a majority, of arrestees are under the influence of alcohol and/or illegal drugs at the time of their offense (e.g., Bennett & Holloway, 2007; Franklin, Allison, & Sutton, 1992; Greenfeld & Henneberg, 2001). Some studies reveal that individuals who use drugs are statistically more likely to offend than individuals who do not use drugs (e.g., Bennett & Holloway, 2007; Benson & Holmberg, 1984; De Li, Priu, & MacKenzie, 2000; Dobinson & Ward, 1985; Elliott, Huizinga, & Menard, 1989). These findings are consistent with the premise that drug use causes crime. However, other scholars note that delinquency commonly precedes or co-occurs with the onset of substance use, which contradicts the causal claim that would demand that drug use precedes crime (Anglin & Speckart, 1988; Brennan, Elliott, & Knowles, 1981; Elliott et al., 1989; Farabee, Joshi, & Anglin, 2001; Inciardi, 1990; Van Kammen & Loeber, 1994). Many drug users do not commit non-drug crimes (or at least, they are not arrested for them), and many criminal events do not involve drugs or alcohol (Felson, Teasdale, & Burchfield, 2008; Graham et al., 1998; Wagner, 1996; Wei, Loeber, & White, 2004; White, Johnson, & Garrison, 1985). The research on prevalence of drug use among offenders also fails to acknowledge that a not-trivial proportion of the nonoffending population is using alcohol or drugs on a regular basis.

In light of the many complexities in the data, most authors today emphasize nuance in the drug-crime relationships. Some scholars argue that a threshold of drug use or intoxication must be passed before drug consumption is likely to exert a criminogenic effect (Murdoch, Pihl, & Ross, 1990; Rossow, 1996). Some find that heavier levels of drug use or the use of multiple drugs are related to a high prevalence of offending (Akers, 1984; Bennett & Holloway, 2007; Brennan, Elliott, & Knowles, 1981; Bruce, Wish, Schmeidler, & Huizinga, 1991; Elliott et al., 1989; Harrison & Gfroerer, 1992; Inciardi & Pottieger, 1994; Johnson, Natarajan, Dunlap, & Elmoghazy, 1994; White et al., 1985). Others point to the wide variety of behavioral effects across different psychoactive substances (e.g., Abadinsky, 2011) and the implications for the likely drug-crime relationship and for drug policy (Kleiman, 1992).

Some commentators have presented arguments that the relationship between alcohol consumption and violence will depend upon such factors as the imbiber’s beliefs about “acceptable” social behavior while drunk, the drinking setting, and the reaction of bystanders to the intoxicated individual (e.g., Collins, 1988; Parker, 1995; Pernanen, 1991). Parker calls this the “selective disinhibition” perspective. Fagan (1990) expected similar interaction effects between illegal drug consumption and social context in regard to all drug-aggression connections, not just alcohol. Many scholars believe that theoretical models specifying intervening mediators between drug use and crime are more likely to be valid than models that propose any simple and direct, causal relationships (Graham, Schmidt, & Gillis, 1996; Kleiman, Caulkins, & Hawken, 2012).

Recognizing that drug use is unlikely to cause prosocial individuals to begin offending in the absence of other criminogenic factors, some scholars argue that continued drug use may exacerbate and increase the person’s frequency and severity of offending over time (Anthony & Forman, 2003; Chaiken & Chaiken, 1990; Farabee et al., 2001; Nurco, Ball, Shaffer, & Hanlon, 1985). This perspective is consistent with evidence that some users engage in a significantly higher rate of offending during periods of active drug use or higher-than-normal levels of consumption (Anglin & Speckart, 1988; Ball, Shaffer, & Nurco, 1983; Collins & Schlenger, 1988; Hunt, Lipton, & Spunt, 1984; Pernanen, 1991; Richardson & Budd, 2003; Swahn & Donovan, 2006). A related conclusion is that drug use may sustain criminal behavior past the point at which the offender might have begun to desist from crime (Cromwell, Olson, & Avary, 1991; Elliott et al., 1989; Sommers, & Baskin, 1993 ).

The current consensus among scholars of drugs and crime is that no single model can explain all drug-crime connections; rather, multiple different types of relationships between drugs and crime exist, none of which are simple, and none of which conform to the simple, direct “drugs cause crime” model (Anthony & Forman, 2003; Brownstein, 2003; Chaiken & Chaiken, 1990).

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