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Drugs and crime

Alcohol / Drug-related crime has been the subject of considerable attention in recent years. As well as imposing substantial economic and social costs upon society and victims of crime, it has a high profile among the public, media and politicians. The question of how addiction treatment influences criminal behaviour is important for the implementation and evaluation of drug treatment programmes and the development of policies to tackle drug misuse. Although clinical services mostly focus on tackling drug misuse and its associated health problems, the reduction of crime is also seen increasingly as a goal of drug misuse treatment.

Alcohol / Drug misusers frequently come into contact with the law, as the use of illegal drugs makes them liable to arrest. There are also other links between drug misuse and crime. Heroin, on a weight-for-weight basis, is more expensive than gold and the regular use of illicit drugs places an excessive economic burden upon the user which, in most cases, cannot be met by legitimate means. 

Prostitution & Crime

Two common ways of obtaining drugs, or obtaining money for drugs, are through acquisitive crimes and through drug dealing or supply. Some drug users support their habit through prostitution, though this is less common. Drug dependence, in particular, imposes a huge financial burden on the user who needs to raise money for drugs, often on a daily basis. The regular use of heroin or cocaine has been linked to income-generating crimes, and offences such as theft (including shoplifting, burglary, and robbery) are common among addicted drug misusers. Police estimates have suggested that about half of all recorded crime in the UK may be drug-related. The high rates of criminal behaviour are reflected in similarly high rates of contact by drug misusers with the criminal justice system. This criminality and the associated demands upon the criminal justice system represent a considerable burden on society.

Crime and drug dependence prior to treatment

The patients who sought treatment in the NTORS programmes in 1995 presented with a range of serious and chronic drug and other problems.3 Just over 1,000 drug misusers reported more than 27,000 acquisitive offences during the 90 days prior to commencing treatment.4 Shoplifting was the most common type of acquisitive crime, both in terms of number of offences and the percentages of drug users committing the offence.

Heroin Users

For the majority of drug misusers, the amounts and types of crime committed were strongly influenced by their current addiction status. Drug users who were more severely dependent on heroin and cocaine tended to be more heavily involved in crime, with increased use of heroin strongly related to higher rates of offending. However, the vast majority of acquisitive crimes were committed by a small minority of drug users, with ten per cent committing about three-quarters of all acquisitive crimes.4 The high-rate offenders in the NTORS study were more than ten times more likely to be regular heroin users and were also three times more likely to be regular cocaine users, compared to those who reported no criminal involvement. Drug selling offences were frequently reported by the NTORS clients. Nearly 40,000 drug dealing offences were reported during the 90 days prior to treatment. However, as with acquisitive crimes, not all drug users were involved in selling drugs. Less than one-third reported selling drugs and for the majority of those who were selling drugs, this was reported to be an occasional activity.

Drug Selling

A minority reported being highly active as drug sellers. Their involvement with drug dealing was of a different order from that of the other drug sellers: 71 individuals (seven per cent of respondents) reported almost 35,000 drug selling offences during the 90 days prior to admission.

The term “drug selling” refers to a range of different activities which are conducted for different reasons. It is possible that the involvement in drug selling of the high-rate offenders reflected a more “professional” approach to dealing. The high frequency of heroin use among these clients could be seen, at least partly, as a consequence of their ready access to the drug. Dealers could benefit from bulk buying and passing on costs to lower level buyers.

Related Crime

There were differences between men and women in the types of crimes committed. Shoplifting was reported by 44 per cent of women compared to 36 per cent of men. Men were more likely to have committed burglary (15% vs 5%), and robbery (6% vs 3%). More men than women were involved in selling drugs (32% vs 20%). An important finding from NTORS – which is sometimes overlooked – is that crime and drug misuse do not inevitably go together. Half of the clients were not involved with acquisitive crime and more than two-thirds were not involved with drug selling crimes during the period before admission. Of those who were involved in crime, the majority were relatively infrequent offenders.