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Criminology Drugs and Crime
by
Richard Wright, Scott Jacques

Introduction

The relationship between drugs and crime has a long history and is a mainstay of fiction, widely documented in media reports, and the subject of substantial scientific investigation. Drugs are not always illegal, and their sale and use does not always lead to crime. Nevertheless, drugs and crime are related to each other in at least three ways. First, the immediate effect of drugs on the mind and body may create mental or physical states that somehow facilitate aggression or theft. Second, drugs are connected to crime when a drug user has a pressing need to consume them but lacks the necessary funds to do so; such situations may lead to predatory crimes, including burglary, robbery, or theft, among others. A third way in which drugs and crime are related is that some psychoactive substances are illegal to use, trade (buy or sell), or grow/manufacture. When drugs are illegal, illicit market participants are unlikely to report being victimized to the police, which means that predators are more likely to prey on them; in turn, there may be retaliation when this happens. In short, drugs can be related to crime if they cause a mental or physical state conducive to lawbreaking, lead to a perceived need that results in the motivation to steal, or result in a decrease in access to formal mediation and a corresponding increase in predatory and retaliatory crimes.

General Overviews

Several general treatments provide a comprehensive review of the drugs-crime relationship. Although Goldstein 1985 is limited by its focus on violence, the framework it suggests is obviously applicable to nonviolent crimes. Conceived in general terms, Goldstein is suggesting that the psychopharmacological effect of drugs can increase the chances of any kind of crime occurring, the perceived need for drugs can increase predatory crimes (e.g., robbery, burglary, and theft) and entrepreneurial crimes (e.g., drug dealing or prostitution), and the absence of formal mediation can increase crimes of predation but can also spark retaliatory measures such as assault and murder. Two edited volumes, Tonry and Wilson 1990 and National Institute of Justice 2003, offer a wide-ranging look at the current knowledge concerning the drugs-crime relationship. Goldstein, et al. 1997 provides qualitatively and quantitatively oriented chapters on the relationship between crack cocaine and violence. Inciardi and McElrath 2007 contains a series of papers on the drugs-crime connection, including Paul J. Goldstein’s influential paper on the topic. The basic facts surrounding the drugs-crime connection, such as definitions and statistics, are available from the ONCDP (Office of National Drug Control Policy 2000) and the BJS (Bureau of Justice Statistics 1998and Bureau of Justice Statistics 2009).

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1998. Alcohol and crime: An analysis of national data on the prevalence of alcohol involvement in crime. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

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    Presents and discusses statistical relationships between alcohol and crime.

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  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. Drug and Crime Facts.

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    Website that provides an array of statistics on various drug-crime connections in the United States.

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  • Goldstein, Paul J. 1985. The drugs/violence nexus: A tripartite conceptual framework. Journal of Drug Issues 15:493–506.

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    Provides the conceptual foundation for much of the post-1985 work on the drugs-violence relationship. This is a necessary read for all persons interested in the link between drugs and crime, especially violent crime.

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  • Inciardi, James A., and Karen McElrath, eds. 2007. The American drug scene: An anthology. 5th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Provides a general overview of illicit drugs and drug use. One section, however, consists of a series of papers on the drugs-crime relationship. Included are discussions of the “date-rape drug” and Paul J. Goldstein’s classic article (Goldstein 1985) on the drug-violence connection.

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  • National Institute of Justice. 2003. Toward a drugs and crime research agenda for the 21st century. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

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    A comprehensive review of concepts, theories, and research on the drugs-crime relationship. Suggests avenues for future work based on the limitations of and gaps in previous research. This work is especially useful for persons interested in the economics of drugs and drug control. Available online.

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  • Office of National Drug Control Policy. 2000. Drug-related crime. Rockville, MD: Drug Policy Information Clearinghouse.

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    Defines various potential drug-crime relationships and provides statistical data pertaining to those relationships. Available online.

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  • Tonry, Michael, and James Q. Wilson, eds. 1990. Drugs and crime. Vol. 13 of Crime and justice: A review of research. Edited by Michael Tonry. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Explores several drugs-crime relationships, including the link between drugs and prostitution, predatory crime, and aggression.

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International Comparisons

Interest in the drugs-crime relationship is internationally widespread. For example, research and theory on the drugs-crime linkage has received substantial attention in England and Australia. The situation in the United Kingdom is explored in empirical studies by Philip Bean (Bean 2005) and by Trevor Bennett and Katy Holloway (Bennett and Holloway 2007). The British Home Office provides online information detailing the ways in which crime in England and Wales is affected by drugs (including alcohol). The Australian Institute of Criminology provides an online tool for exploring how drugs are correlated with a wide range of offenses in Australia, and Mouzos and Borzycki 2006 and Prichard and Payne 2005 use quantitative data to investigate drugs-crime connections in that country. The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction provides summary information on drugs and crime in European countries.

Psychopharmacology

If the consumption of a drug leads to an immediate mental state conducive to crime, then the drug is said to have a psychopharmacological relationship to offending (see Goldstein 1985 in General Overviews). Although typically legal (at least in Western societies), the drug with the seemingly largest psychopharmacological relationship to crime, especially violence, is alcohol. The role of alcohol in violence is reviewed by Parker and Auerhahn 1998. Studies based on longitudinal data in White, et al. 2002 and Wei, et al. 2004 demonstrate that alcohol likely increases crime but that the relationship between marijuana and crime is likely spurious. Felson, et al. 2008a and Felson, et al. 2008b show that alcohol intoxication (as compared to consumption) increases crime, including violent offenses. In addition, in Felson and Burchfield 2004, alcohol intoxication is shown to increase victimization risk.

Economic Compulsion

If the perceived need for a drug leads someone to commit an offense, then use of that drug is said to have an economic compulsive relationship to crime (see Goldstein 1985 in General Overviews). Drugs, especially illegal drugs, can be expensive for a number of reasons, so persons with a pressing need for them may be motivated to commit income-generating crimes, such as robbery and burglary. The addictive properties of heroin are well known, and so heroin users are often thought to steal because they require large amounts of money to support their illicit habit and avoid painful withdrawal symptoms. The economic compulsive behavior of American heroin addicts is examined by Johnson, et al. 1985; Grapendaal, et al. 1995 does the same for Dutch addicts. Research on the ways in which the economics of drug use affect predatory crime is reviewed by Chaiken and Chaiken 1990. Baumer, et al. 1998 shows that the changing nature of drug markets can increase or decrease predatory forms of crime. Ball, et al. 1982 shows that heroin addicts participate in a large number of crimes, many of which involve theft.

  • Ball, John C., Lawrence Rosen, John A. Flueck, and David N. Nurco. 1982. Lifetime criminality of heroin addicts in the United States. Journal Of Drug Issues 12:225–239.

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    Quantitative methods are used to show that heroin addicts are used in an enormous amount of crime. For instance, they find the average heroin addict commits almost two thousand offenses after becoming addicted to heroin.

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  • Baumer, Eric, Janet L. Lauritsen, Richard Rosenfeld, and Richard Wright. 1998. The influence of crack cocaine on robbery, burglary, and homicide rates: A cross-city, longitudinal analysis. Journal Of Research In Crime And Delinquency 35:316–340.

    DOI: 10.1177/0022427898035003004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that the rewards and prevalence of property crimes can be altered by changes in drug markets.

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  • Chaiken, Jan M., and Marcia R. Chaiken. 1990. Drugs and predatory crime. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 13, Drugs and crime. Edited by Michael Tonry and James Q. Wilson. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Reviews research on the relationship between drugs and predatory crime and vice versa.

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  • Grapendaal, Martin, Ed Leuw, and Hans Nelen. 1995. A world of opportunities: Lifestyle and economic behavior of heroin addicts in Amsterdam. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

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    Based on ethnographic research, this study documents and discusses how heroin addicts in Amsterdam use crime to support and sustain their habits.

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  • Johnson, Bruce D., Paul J. Goldstein, Edward Preble, James Schmeidler, Douglas S. Lipton, Barry Spunt, and Thomas Miller. 1985. Taking care of business: The economics of crime by heroin abusers. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

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    An extensive examination of heroin abusers and, among other things, the role of theft in maintaining their drug habits; a key contribution to the study of drugs and crime.

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Systemic

If lack of access to formal means of dispute resolution resulting from a drug’s illegality leads to an offense, then the drug is said to have a systemic relationship to crime (see Goldstein 1985 in General Overviews). Violent crime is often the top priority for government officials, citizens, and scientists alike. Goldstein, et al. 1997 and Jensen 2000 use quantitative research methods to show that the criminalization of drugs may increase violence. Zimring and Hawkins 1997 adds to the debate by arguing that drug markets are more likely to produce violence where the conditions for violence already exist. Ousey and Lee 2002 finds empirical support for that idea. Jacques and Wright 2008 observes that although violence is an important feature of drug markets, not all drug market–related crimes are violent; some are related to fraudulent or unseen/stealthy means. Brownstein, et al. 2000 suggests that systemic violence is more likely in certain kinds of drug markets than others.

  • Brownstein, Henry H., Susan M. Crimmins, and Barry J. Spunt. 2000. A conceptual framework for operationalizing the relationship between violence and drug market stability. Journal Of Drug Issues 27:867–890.

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    Suggests that systemic violence is more likely to emerge from unstable than stable drug markets. This paper provides a good starting point for future research into drug market violence.

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  • Goldstein, Paul J., Henry H. Brownstein, Patrick J. Ryan, and Patricia A. Bellucci. 1997. Crack and homicide in New York City: A case study in the epidemiology of violence. In Crack in America: Demon drugs and social justice. Edited by Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine, 113–130. Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

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    Clearly shows that drug market–related violence accounts for a large percentage of all murders in New York City and for an even larger portion of all drug-related crime.

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  • Jacques, Scott, and Richard Wright. 2008. The relevance of peace to studies of drug market violence. Criminology 46:221–253.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2008.00102.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Builds on the tripartite framework of the drugs-violence nexus in Goldstein 1985. Argues that the absence of formal mediation in the underworld may increase nonviolent crimes, such as fraud and burglary, which may be predatory or retaliatory in nature.

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  • Jensen, Gary F. 2000. Prohibition, alcohol, and murder: Untangling countervailing mechanisms. Homicide Studies 4:18–36.

    DOI: 10.1177/1088767900004001002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that the American prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th century may have increased retaliatory murder.

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  • Ousey, Graham C., and Matthew R. Lee. 2002. Examining the conditional nature of the illicit drug market–homicide relationship: A partial test of the theory of contingent causation. Criminology 40:73–102.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1745-9125.2002.tb00950.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using quantitative research methods, provides support for the Zimring and Hawkins 1997 theory of contingent causation by showing that higher levels of drug market activity and social disadvantage are associated with higher levels of homicide.

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  • Zimring, Franklin E., and Gordon Hawkins. 1997. Crime is not the problem: Lethal violence in America. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Notes that although drug markets often do experience high levels of violent crime, not all drug markets are violent (for example, some of those outside the United States). Therefore, the anarchy of drug markets may be a contingent, or potential, cause of violence; that is, drug markets will increase violence where the conditions for violence already exist.

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Offending

Drug market participants are often involved in criminal violence, such as robbery and serious assault, but even more so in nonviolent offenses, such as burglary and fraud. Topalli, et al. 2002 outlines the rational considerations that motivate retaliation in drug markets. Kubrin and Weitzer 2003 demonstrates how honor cultures, drug markets, and retaliation come together to increase violence. Fagan and Chin 1990 provides evidence that drug dealing does not increase violence. The ethnographic research in Taylor 2007 explores the situational factors that affect violent retaliation.

  • Fagan, Jeffrey, and Ko-lin Chin. 1990. Violence as regulation and social control in the distribution of crack. In Drugs and violence: causes, correlates, and consequences. Edited by Maria de la Rosa, Elizabeth Y. Lambert, and Bernard Gropper, 8–43. Rockville, MD: U.S. Deptartment of Health and Human Services; Public Health Service; Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration; National Institute on Drug Abuse.

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    Based on quantitative research methods, suggests that the relationship between drug dealing and violence is spurious, as evidenced by the finding that drug dealers are often violent in situations unrelated to drug dealing. Available online.

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  • Jacques, Scott. 2009. The necessary conditions for retaliation: Toward a theory of non-violent and violent forms in drug markets. Justice Quarterly April 30.

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    Retaliatory crimes that flow from drug market conflicts are not always violent, as some are fraudulent or stealthy (unseen). Suggests more attention should be devoted to documenting and explaining nonviolent forms of retaliation. Available online.

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  • Kubrin, Charis E., and Ronald Weitzer. 2003. Retaliatory homicide: Concentrated disadvantage and neighborhood culture. Social Problems 50.2: 157–180.

    DOI: 10.1525/sp.2003.50.2.157Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses quantitative data to show that drug market–related homicides tend to be retaliatory, which suggests the influence of a pervasive honor culture.

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  • Taylor, Angela P. 2007. How drug dealers settle disputes: Violent and non-violent outcomes. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

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    Uses interviews with urban drug dealers to examine the situational components affecting the decision of whether or not to retaliate.

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  • Topalli, Volkan, Richard Wright, and Robert Fornango. 2002. Drug dealers, robbery, and retaliation: Vulnerability, deterrence, and the contagion of violence. British Journal Of Criminology 42.2: 337–351.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/42.2.337Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Shows that drug dealers often respond violently to victimization because this serves the important goals of reputation maintenance, loss recovery, and deterrence.

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Victimization

Crimes always involve an offender, but most also involve a direct victim as well. In some cases, the victim becomes the offender and vice versa. Jacobs, et al. 2000 and Jacobs 2000 show how the decision-making calculus of robbers is affected by their fear of violent retaliation. However, Jacques and Wright 2008 shows that victimization in the drug world does not always lead to retaliation but may nevertheless serve to reduce offending.

Theory and Research

Although the drugs-crime connection can be interpreted through a variety of theoretical perspectives, theory and research on the topic has been dominated by economists and ethnographers. Typically, economists use quantitative data and mathematical modeling to understand how the size and nature of drug markets affects the crime that flows from them. Caulkins, et al. 2006 and Miron 2004 use an economic approach to assess the value of drug prohibition and its effect on violence. Reuter, et al. 1990 and Levitt and Venkatesh 2000 show that the chances of dying a violent death are extremely high for lower-class urban drug dealers. In the realm of ethnography, Adler 1993 studies the world of upper-level drug smugglers, whereas Jacobs 1999, Bourgois 2003, and Williams 1989 provide an in-depth look at retail crack cocaine selling.

  • Adler, Patricia. 1993. Wheeling and dealing: An ethnography of an upper-level drug dealing and smuggling community. 2d ed. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Classic work on the ethnography of drug smuggling. Examines all aspects of this crime, including its relationship to predatory victimization and retaliatory crimes.

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  • Bourgois, Philippe. 2003. In search of respect: Selling crack in El Barrio. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Based on conversations with and observations of drug dealers. Examines how culture affects selling and violent control.

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  • Caulkins, Jonathan P., Peter Reuter, and Lowell J. Taylor. 2006. Can supply restrictions lower price? Violence, drug dealing, and positional advantage. Contributions To Economic Analysis and Policy 5.1: 1–20.

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    Uses economic theory to suggest that the incarceration of violent drug dealers may reduce the price of drugs.

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  • Jacobs, Bruce A. 1999. Dealing crack. Boston: Northeastern Univ. Press.

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    Based on interviews and fieldwork with crack cocaine dealers, explores their social world, especially predatory victimization and offending in the course of street dealing.

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  • Levitt, Steven, and Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. 2000. An economic analysis of a drug-selling gang’s finances. Quarterly Journal Of Economics 115.3: 755–789.

    DOI: 10.1162/003355300554908Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses unique data to examine the costs and benefits of drug dealing. Shows that death rates among persons in a drug-selling gang are about 7 percent annually and that over a four-year period the likelihood of dying a violent death is approximately 25 percent.

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  • Miron, Jeffrey A. 2004. Drug war crimes: The consequences of prohibition. Oakland, CA: Independent Institute.

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    Provides a cost-benefit analysis of drug prohibition, with a focus on its costs.

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  • Reuter, Peter, Robert MacCoun, and Patrick Murphy. 1990. Money from crime: A study of the economics of drug dealing in Washington, D.C. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp.

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    An empirical study of the costs and benefits of drug dealing in the U.S. capital. Finds that the average seller’s risk of being murdered is about 1 percent annually, and that over a ten-year span a dealer’s chance of being murdered is one in seven.

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  • Williams, Terry. 1989. The cocaine kids: The inside story of a teenage drug ring. New York: Perseus.

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    The story of a group of youths who sold drugs, including the dangers they regularly faced because of their wealth and illicit business.

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Policy and Prevention

The policy issues surrounding drugs and crime are complex. The best strategy for reducing one form of crime may have the unintended effect of increasing other forms of crime. For instance, the most effective government strategy in reducing drug consumption might also serve to exacerbate crimes of predation and retaliation. The ethnographic research of Curtis and Wendel 2007 and Rosenfeld, et al. 2003 demonstrates how the government’s reaction to illicit drugs can increase or decrease other kinds of lawbreaking, including violent crimes. The reviews of MacCoun and Reuter 2001 and Manski, et al. 2001 provide comprehensive overviews (including statistics and discussions) of the key issues in government efforts to minimize the link between drugs and crime.

  • Curtis, Ric, and Travis Wendel. 2007. “You’re always training the dog”: Strategic interventions to reconfigure drug markets. Journal Of Drug Issues 37:867–890.

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    Uses ethnographic data to show that police interventions can be used to reduce drug market–related violence.

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  • MacCoun, Robert J., and Peter Reuter. 2001. Drug war heresies: Learning from other vices, times, and places. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Provides an exhaustive overview of drug policies around the world for various drugs, including how these policies may affect crime.

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  • Manski, Charles F., John V. Pepper, and Carol V. Petrie, eds. 2001. Informing America’s policy on illegal drugs: What we don’t know keeps hurting us. National Research Council, Committee on Data and Research for Policy on Illegal Drugs. Committee on Law and Justice and Committee on National Statistics, Commission on Behavioral and Social Science and Education. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

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    A comprehensive report that deals in part with the fact that making drugs illegal can serve to increase some forms of crime.

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  • Rosenfeld, Richard, Bruce Jacobs, and Richard Wright. 2003. Snitching and the code of the street. British Journal Of Criminology 43.2: 291–309.

    DOI: 10.1093/bjc/43.2.291Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Based on in-depth interviews with active offenders. Suggests that the police should take the victimizations of offenders seriously as a way of reducing retaliatory violence.

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U.S.-based Agencies

Several U.S.-based government agencies collect and disseminate data and findings on the magnitude of and relationships between drugs and crime. The websites maintained by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are similar in that both provide basic information on drug law and enforcement in the United States; these websites also describe the effect of various drugs on the mind and body. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is the U.S. government repository for official and survey data that allow for quantitative analyses of the connection between drugs and crime. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ )website has links to published studies and findings (including briefs) related to the drugs-crime nexus.

LAST MODIFIED: 12/14/2009

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0061

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