In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Substance Use and Abuse

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Data Sources
  • Substance Use and Crime: Individual Level
  • Substance Use and Crime: Structural Level
  • Theories of Substance Use and the Drug-Crime Relationship
  • Substance Use, Abuse, and Possession as Crime
  • Alcohol-Related Offenses
  • Drug Control Policies
  • Drug Courts
  • Drug Treatment for Offenders
  • Drug Policy Implications
  • Drug Legalization and Control Policy Debates

Criminology Substance Use and Abuse
Amie L. Nielsen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0029


Use of substances for many reasons is widespread in the United States. Although use of some drugs is acceptable and legal (for example, caffeine, prescription drugs for use by the person they were prescribed for), use of others is not. For the purposes of this entry, the focus is on the latter. Substance use and abuse refer to use of various types of drugs for nontherapeutic reasons and often to alter mood. Some of these substances may be legal to use and possess for some people but illegal for others. Other substances such as cocaine and marijuana are illegal when possessed and used, as well as manufactured, trafficked, and transported, by all Americans. Use of substances is differentiated from abuse of substances. “Use” may refer to experimental or occasional use of a substance. Abuse, on the other hand, is often characterized by a habitual and maladaptive pattern of drug use that involves adverse consequences associated with use of the substance. Abuse may lead to addiction, which typically involves chronic and compulsive use: but not all substance users or abusers become addicts. Substance use and abuse is an important area of crime. As is discussed in the entry “Drugs and Crime,” there are indeed complex connections between alcohol, drugs, and crime. Not all substance use and abuse, however, leads to involvement in other types of crime. Yet, the use and abuse of many substances, as well as behaviors engaged in while under their influence and to obtain them, are themselves criminal acts. These types of offenses result in many arrests, incarceration, involvement in drug courts, and drug treatment concerns. For example, annual arrests for substance abuse violations are, and for several years have been, the single largest category of arrests, excluding the crimes listed under “all other offenses” (Federal Bureau of Investigation 2009a, cited in the sections Data Sources and Alcohol-Related Offenses). In total, arrests for substance-abuse-related crimes represent more than one-third of arrests in any given year, and they entail substantial efforts at detection by law enforcement. A substantial percentage of prison populations, especially in the federal system, are devoted to offenders arrested for substance abuse violations. Thus, because substance abuse and related behaviors are often linked to other forms of crime, as well as being crimes themselves, this is an important area of consideration in criminology as well as other disciplines, including public health.

General Overviews

There are several general treatments that provide overviews of the relationships between substance use and abuse and crime. Inciardi and McElrath 2008 provides a comprehensive overview of definitions, various types of substances, as well as a discussion of drug-policy issues. Goode 2007 is a useful textbook on similar topics. Both Inciardi and McElrath 2008 and Goode 2007 are accessible for undergraduates, and the former is useful for graduate students as well. White and Gorman 2000 provides a comprehensive albeit chapter-length discussion of major issues in the area; it is also accessible for graduate students.

  • Goode, Erich. 2007. Drugs in American society, 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

    The book provides an overview of drug policies and use throughout American history, including theories of drug use from biological, psychological, and sociological perspectives, and of the illicit drug industry; it briefly addresses data sources, drug policies, and control; and several of its chapters discuss different drugs, with another covering drugs and the media.

  • Inciardi, James A., and Karen McElrath, eds. 2008. The American drug scene: An anthology. 5th ed. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Sections address theoretical perspectives on drug use and addiction; provide background on different substances of abuse (for example, alcohol, marijuana, opiates), the drugs-crime connection, drug treatment, and drug-policy issues.

  • White, Helene Raskin, and D. M. Gorman. 2000. Dynamics of the drug-crime relationship. In Criminal justice 2000: The changing nature of crime, Vol. 1. Edited by Gary LaFree, Robert J. Bursik Jr., James F. Short Jr., Ralph B. Taylor, and Robert J. Sampson, 151–218. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

    Provides an overview of key issues in the relationship between illicit drugs and crime, including the history of drug laws, nature of the drugs and crime relationship, trends in drug use, and implications of drug laws for the criminal justice system. Available online.

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