Alcohol, Drugs, and Violent vs. Nonviolent Crime

The current consensus among scholars 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 basic “drugs cause crime” premise (Anthony & Forman, 2003; Brownstein, 2003; Chaiken & Chaiken, 1990) (see Chapter 3). Here we return to the central focus of this book: does alcohol or drug use predict violent crime over and above its impact on criminality more generally?


In contrast to most of the other topics addressed in this book, scholars have devoted some attention to the possibility of differential drug and/or alcohol effects on violent versus nonviolent crime. This discussion has almost exclusively involved illicit drugs rather than alcohol. Alcohol is legal and significantly more affordable than illicit drugs, which typically excludes it from discussions about drug users who commit theft in order to finance their habit. As such, almost all discussion of an alcohol-crime connection revolves around the psychopharmacological effects of intoxication on violence. Indeed, psychopharmacological explanations for any type of drug effect overwhelmingly refer to acts of aggression, not offenses against property. In contrast, the illegality and high cost of other types of drugs more readily lend themselves to a discussion of the relationship between drugs and theft (White & Gorman, 2000). As it stands, many scholars have already posited that alcohol is more strongly related to violent than nonviolent crime (Boles & Miotto, 2003; De La Rosa, Lambert, & Gropper, 1990; MacCoun, Kilmer, & Reuter, 2003; McBride, VanderWaal, & Terry-McElrath, 2003; Menard & Mihalic, 2001; Parker & Auerhahn, 1998), whereas (most) illegal drugs are thought to be more strongly related to nonviolent crime (Fergusson & Horwood, 2000; Gottfredson,

Kearley, & Bushway, 2008; Harrison, 1992; Parker & Auerhahn, 1998; Watters, Reinarman, & Fagan, 1985), with less consensus about violence.

We believe that an unskeptical acceptance of these conclusions is unwarranted and that the differential relationships of alcohol and illicit drugs with violent and nonviolent crime need to be systematically examined. Many of the studies that find strong associations between alcohol and violence or between the use of illegal drugs and property crime do not include measures of both types of crime. MacCoun et al. (2003) point out that most studies in which analyses of economic- compulsive violence appear have focused on murders rather than robberies or burglaries. Studies reporting findings on just one type of crime preclude a judgment about whether or not the drug is more strongly or consistently related to violent behavior overall.

In addition, not all experts dismiss a potential association between alcohol and nonviolent crime. Felson and his colleagues (Felson, Savolainen, Aaltonen, & Moustgaard, 2008; Felson & Staff, 2010) have made the case that alcohol consumption may be strongly related to nonviolent crime as well as to violence. Their reasoning is that “. if alcohol interferes with self-awareness, intellectual functioning, or the tendency to feel anxiety about the act, or if it increases risk taking or physiological arousal, then it should affect all types of crime and delinquency.. For example, drinking might provide an excuse for offenders to steal or to vandalize property if it allows them to avoid responsibility” (Felson et al., 2008, p. 787). White and her colleagues have voiced similar arguments about possible alcohol-nonviolent crime linkages (White & Gorman, 2000; White, Tice, Loeber, & Stouthamer-Loeber, 2002).

Theorizing the possible relationships between violence, nonviolent offending, and illicit drugs is a more complicated task. After all, there are numerous types of drugs, each with their own psychopharmacological properties and black market costs and dynamics. Goldstein (1985) posited that certain types of illicit drugs are more likely to be associated with certain types of violence than others. Specifically, he proposed that alcohol, stimulants, barbiturates, and PCP may have a “psychopharmacological” influence on violence, while heroin and cocaine may be most strongly associated with economic compulsive violence. Beyond Goldstein’s example, as well as texts that generally provide reasoning for associations between specific drugs and violent behavior (e.g., Liska, 1997), few scholars have attempted to theorize specific drug-crime relationships; rather, most studies that do analyze different drugs separately usually take an inductive approach without providing a set of expectations about one drug versus another. Many, but not all, studies report different relationships between various drug-crime combinations, but drug-specific findings have not been terribly consistent (see Boles & Miotto, 2003; Parker & Auerhahn, 1998).

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