Drugs, Alcohol and Crime


Randall G. Shelden


It is almost impossible to read a newspaper or something on the Internet or watch a television news program without reference to illegal drug use, especially as it relates to crime. Big drug busts are a continuing source of “tabloid news” on the major networks, especially local newscasts.  Reporters seem to enjoy early-morning raids on most poor and minority communities, with cameras focused on yet another victim of the drug war.


While browsing the Internet I came across a report called “Drug-Related Crime” appearing on the web site of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, part of the Executive Office of the President. This publication was dated March, 2003, so the data cited here are fairly recent. http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/publications/factsht/drugdata/


This report tries its best to make the case that there is a very close connection between drugs and crime, especially violent crime.  In the very fist paragraph we find this statement: “Drugs are related to crime in multiple ways. Most directly, it is a crime to use, possess, manufacture, or distribute drugs classified as having a potential for abuse (such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and amphetamines). Drugs are also related to crime through the effects they have on the user's behavior and by generating violence and other illegal activity in connection with drug trafficking.” Then in the next paragraph is this one-sentence statement: “Drug-related offenses and drug-using lifestyles are major contributors to the U.S. crime problem.” The report further reveals that in 1997 those “arrested in the past year for possession or sale of drugs and driving under the influence had the highest percentage of illicit drug use in the past year.”   They “were also about 16 times more likely than nonusers to report being arrested and booked for larceny or theft; more than 14 times more likely to be arrested and booked for such offenses as driving under the influence, drunkenness, or liquor law violations; and more than 9 times more likely to be arrested and booked on an assault charge.”


The last set of numbers quoted above is misleading, to say the least.  Take the phrase “16 times more likely” for instance.  The table from which this statement is derived reveals that among the users of illicit drugs, only 1.6% were arrested for larceny, compared to 0.1% of nonusers.  Stated differently, this means that 98.4% of illicit drug users were not arrested for this offense.  The same small percentages are found for other offenses (e.g., only 0.9% of the users were arrested for aggravated assault, compared to 0.1% of the non-users). 


What is even more interesting is that within this same table we find the percentages who were drunk 51 days or more during the past year.  Among those that were, 1.8% were arrested for larceny compared to 0.2% of those not drunk.  Only 0.9% of those who were drunk 51 days or more were arrested for aggravated assault, compared to 0.1% of those who were not (note that these percentages were identical to the illicit drug question).


In fact, among the ten offenses listed in the table, those who were drunk 51 days or more were more likely than those who used illicit drugs to be arrested for seven of the listed crimes (with one an exact tie – aggravated assault).


The report does note that among those arrested, drug testing revealed that in most cities where surveys were conducted the majority tested positive for drugs.  But all this tells us is that those ending up sitting in a jail cell had a very high probability of having recently used drugs. This does not say that using drugs means you will commit a crime.  The report notes that it is hard to make a strong connection between illegal drugs and crime and, notes that “Most crimes result from a variety of factors (personal, situational, cultural, economic); even when drugs are a cause, they are likely to be only one factor among many.”


With regard to the connection between illicit drugs and violence the following point is made (which is also supported by a lot of research): “Trafficking in illicit drugs tends to be associated with the commission of violent crimes.” The report then cites three reasons for this: “competition for drug markets and customers, disputes and rip-offs among individuals involved in the illegal drug market and, the tendency toward violence of individuals who participate in drug trafficking.”  In other words, the violence-drug connection stems from the fact that this much-demanded product is illegal.


The report concludes with this statement: “In the face of problematic evidence, it is impossible to say quantitatively how much drugs influence the occurrence of crime.”  Note that at the start of this report the reader is told that illegal drug use is a major contributor to the crime problem.


If the reader of this report begins to get the feeling that there is something wrong here, then what follows at the end is revealing, for the report gives several sources of information. Curiously one source is a report called “Alcohol and Crime,” a Department of Justice publication (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/ac.htm).  This report is worth reading, for it informs us that without a doubt alcohol plays a far greater role in crime than illegal drugs.  This is not surprising among criminologists for this has been documented for many years.  Here are some of the key findings of this report:


An estimated 450,000 died because of tobacco in the year 2000.  Another 85,000 died because of alcohol, compared to just 17,000 deaths from the use of illegal drugs; 32,000 died from adverse reactions to prescription drugs; none died from using marijuana. What does this tell us?  Obviously the most deadly drugs (tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs) are perfectly legal, which the least deadly are illegal.  You can draw your own conclusion about why this is the case.


 © 2006, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.