In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Drugs and Crime

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • International Comparisons
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Economic Compulsion
  • Theory and Research

Criminology Drugs and Crime
Richard Wright, Scott Jacques
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0061


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.

    Presents and discusses statistical relationships between alcohol and crime.

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics. Drug and Crime Facts.

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

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

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

  • 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.

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

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