Fact Sheet: Drug Abuse and Crime

About the fact-sheet series: Fact sheets summarize current literature into a short (2 page) document intended for distribution. Fact-sheets are extremely useful for academics, professionals or laypeople who are in contact with offenders, victims, corrections or the legal system in any way. They provide a means to disseminate empirically based information in a way that is both quick and useful. Fact sheets undergo the EAPL-S peer review process and editing before publication. 
About the author: This article is part of the Undergraduate Author Series, which means that it was written by an undergraduate university student. This article was written as a guest post by Fiona Stevenson, a third-year psychology student at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

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Defining substance abuse

Substance abuse is a prevalent issue throughout the world that pertains to the excessive use of psychoactive substances (e.g. alcohol and illicit drugs)[1]. Criminal behaviour refers to the intentional behaviour that violates a criminal code without justification or excuse[2]. Substance abuse is most commonly associated with the use of alcohol and illicit drugs although it is not limited to just these two substances. Any substance that is being used in a manner in which it was not intended for could be classified under substance abuse, such as, solvents, over the counter drugs or inhalants all fall within the bracket of substance abuse. Due to the nature of substance abuse, many of the risks and consequences of it can be linked to crime. This fact sheet intends to describe and inform readers of the basics about substance abuse and how rates of substance abuse are linked to crime.

Substance abuse and crime

Criminality and substance abuse generally makes people think of illegal drugs, and to a certain extent this assumption is correct. For example, in 2007 drug related offences reached a 30-year all time high in Canada[3]. However, there is not a direct causal relationship between drug use and crime. Other factors are also involved, and will be discussed next in the ‘risk factors’ section[4]. Unfortunately, the full extent of drug related crime is unknown since the number of drug related crimes are based on police reports, and that not all crimes are reported to the police. Most numbers are an underestimation of the true statistics[5]. Furthermore, different crimes are also more correlated to different substances, due to the effects that they have on the body and the consequent effects that they have on perception. For example, statistics show that one is more likely to be involved in property damage if they are under the influence of alcohol[6].

Risk factors

There is often a misconception that criminal behaviour is caused by illicit drugs. Despite there being a 30-year all time high in drug related offences, this is not a correct assumption. Other influences such as a previous history of criminal behaviour, family or peer groups that are involved in criminal behaviour, or maintaining anti-social beliefs, each play a part in increasing the likelihood of recidivating (reoffending)[7]. Research has also shown that in general, one of the major risk factors for repeated offending is a behaviour pattern that reflects an antisocial tendency[8].

Individuals at the highest risk for criminal behaviour and who are thought of as a typical offender, tend to be of a younger demographic, male, and generally non-Caucasian. Other factors such as a low SES or a low IQ also can contribute to the prediction of criminal behaviour.

Although these characteristics are good predictors of individuals who become involved in crime, they do not mean that an individual with similar circumstances is destined for that particular lifestyle. It simply forecasts a higher risk for criminal behaviour.

Consequences of substance abuse

The effect of substance abuse on both the individual and also on society is substantial; such consequences take a toll on public health and social institutes such as hospitals and rehabilitative programs, as well as contributing to the overcrowding of jails and prisons.

While Maryland substance abuse treatment centers and similar facilities all over the country are equipped to deal with drug addiction, the ever-increasing incidences of drug addiction can still prove to be overwhelming.

Due to the nature of certain drugs, substance abuse can sometimes be a precursor to diseases contracted through shared needle use such as HIV or hepatitis. Often the consequences of substance abuse can create a vicious cycle that is difficult for the individual to escape from.


Due to the nature of crime, it is difficult to pin point where exactly the problem begins. What comes first, criminal activity or substance abuse? Often the two come hand in hand, which can then create further problems. However, extensive treatment and rehabilitation action plans are in place to aid individuals who are involved with such activities, in an effort to help the situation. Luckily, drug and alcohol levels in youth are generally starting to drop worldwide, which bodes well for the next generation.

Quick summary

    • Drugs are involved in the commission of most crimes.
    • However, drug abuse does not cause crime, it is simply a risk-factor for it.
    • Substance abuse has far-reaching consequences.
    • It is often difficult to determine whether substance abuse precedes crime, or crime precedes substance abuse.


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  1. Trends in police reported drug offences in Canada. (2009). Statistics Canada. Retrieved May 24, 2012, from www.who.int
  2. Bartol, Curt R., & Bartol A.M. (2004). Introduction to forensic psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  3. Dauvergne, M. (2009). Trends in police-reported drug offences in Canada. Statistics Canada: Canada's national statistical agency / Statistique Canada : Organisme statistique national du Canada. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca
  4. DRUG, T. O. (n.d.). Illegal Drug Use and Crime: A Complex Relationship. Parliament of Canada Web Site - Site Web du Parlement du Canada. Retrieved from http://www.parl.gc.ca
  5. Dauvergne, M. (2009). Trends in police-reported drug offences in Canada. Statistics Canada: Canada's national statistical agency / Statistique Canada : Organisme statistique national du Canada. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca
  6. Popovici, I., Homer, J. F., Fang, H., & French, M. T. (2012). Alcohol use and crime: Findings from a longitudinal sample of U.S. adolescents and young adults. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 36(3), 532-543. Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com
  7. John Howard Society - Perspectives on Canadian Drug Policy Volume 1 - Page 66. (n.d.). The John Howard Society of Canada. Retrieved May 25, 2012, from http://www.johnhoward.ca
  8. Risk factors for (repeated) criminal behaviour - Corrections Department NZ. (n.d.). Home - Corrections Department NZ. Retrieved May 25, 2012, from http://www.corrections.govt.nz

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Overview of Fact Sheet topics covered to date