Drug Policy

Did the Drugs Make Them Do It?


Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske says the latest data from the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) program "reaffirm the strong link between drug use and crime," while the headline over his office's press release about the survey's 2008 results says, "New Study Reveals Scope of Drug and Crime Connection." But what is the nature of this connection?

The survey found that at least half of arrestees in the 10 cities covered by ADAM tested positive for illegal drugs. In the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, by contrast, about 8 percent of respondents reported "current" (past-month) use of illegal drugs.* Even allowing for underreporting in the general population survey, it's clear that drug use is higher than normal among arrestees, which is consistent with the findings of earlier research. But there are several possible explanations for this association. Here are a few:

1. Arrestees include people nabbed for drug crimes.

2. People who are inclined to break the law in one way (by snatching a purse, say) are also inclined to break it in other ways (by using forbidden intoxicants).

3. Addicts steal to pay for their drugs.

4. Criminals under the influence of drugs are especially likely to get caught.  

5. Heavy drug users have a hard time keeping jobs.

6. Drugs make people commit crimes.

The first three explanations suggest that the relationship between drug use and crime is a by-product of prohibition, which makes the use of certain intoxicants illegal, requires the arrest of people who possess them, and dramatically inflates their cost. The fourth explanation suggests that we may want criminals to use drugs. The fifth explanation could be considered a utilitarian justification for prohibition, except that the illegal status of an addict's drug is one of the factors that makes it hard to find and keep employment. Would the average alcoholic's job prospects improve if booze were banned? (More generally, it's not clear that the harm prohibition prevents by stopping people from becoming heavy drug users outweighs the harm it causes by making life more difficult for those who do anyway.) Only the last hypothesis counts strongly in favor of prohibition. If illegal intoxicants really did have the power to transform otherwise law-abiding people into predatory criminals, the war on drugs would be literally that: a struggle against the malevolent forces lurking within certain chemicals.

In  choosing among these hypotheses (which are not mutually exclusive), it may be helpful to know that the most common drug detected in ADAM's urine tests was marijuana, traces of which can be found days or weeks after its effects have worn off. That fact makes the second explanation, that illegal drug use is part of a general lawbreaking tendency, seem more plausible. In any case, it seems unlikely that marijuana made them do it. Those who tested positive for cocaine or heroin typically would have used the drug more recently, making it more plausible that they were heavy users whose habits had something to do with their crimes. But the nature of the crimes (drug, property, or violent) and the nature of the connection remain unclear.

I suppose we should be thankful that the main lesson Kerlikowske draws from these data is that they "underscore the serious need to expand programs that work to divert non-violent offenders into drug treatment programs instead of prison." If these "non-violent offenders" are mostly people arrested for drug law violations, such diversion has to count as an improvement. Although the medicalization of drug policy is not without problems, arrestees themselves surely would prefer "treatment" to prison, whether they need it or not.

[*It's not clear how accurate the NSDUH estimate is, since people may be disinclined to admit illegal behavior even in a confidential survey. Arrestees might be even warier; then again, they might be more truthful if they are trying to seem cooperative, blame their crimes on drug addiction, and/or qualify for diversion to a treatment program. For what it's worth, the ADAM researchers found (PDF) "a high degree of agreement between self-reported recent drug use and urine test results" among arrestees.]

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  1. Well since when the drug warriors talk about “drug use” they always mean illegal drugs, then what their telling us is that there’s a connection between breaking the law and crime.

    BTW how much did this study cost so that we could learn this potent fact?

  2. the strong link between drug use and crime

    The correlation coefficient is 1.

  3. Sara: You can’t help a drug addict until they’ve hit rock bottom. And sometimes it’s important to help the process along. You dig a hole in the yard and cover it with sticks and leaves, put glass in their slippers…

    Woman: Cut the brake cable in their car…

    Sara: Exactly. Cut the brake cable in their car. The point is to help them hurt themselves.

  4. Let’s try an alternative hypothesis. Some people are unable to understand risk and long-term consequences and as a result, engage in all kinds of behavior that demonstrates this poor understanding. Like crime, and drug use, and unprotected sex, and driving too fast in the rain. Poor decision making skills and shitty judgment leads to all kinds of self-harming behavior, doesn’t it? Like voting for Obama…

    Kind of like the side effect of pot use being “amotivational syndrome”. Pot heads are lazy slackers because they smoke dope! Or maybe, just maybe, some of us were lazy slackers beforehand and figured out smoking weed was a pleasant way to pass the time without doing much at all. Now that I’m old and married and don’t do anything besides drink beer, guess what? I’m still a lazy bastard! But, hey, if we can blame the drugs, it means we don’t have to accept responsibility for our faults and try to change them.

  5. Here’s my hypothesis. People in high crime neighborhoods often have symptoms of PTSD. Imagine going to sleep at night and hearing gunshots nearby, and on a regular basis. These people witness violent crimes and are often the victims of crime. One of the indicated uses of medical marijuana is to treat the symptoms of PTSD. Marijuana simply works for them, so they use it, get caught and become a statistic themselves.

  6. Drugs lead to crime. Otherwise, we’d call the stuff “medicine”.

  7. @ T
    It’s worse than that, T. Your comments will be used by drug warriors as proof that smoking weed will PERMANENTLY cause amotivational syndrome.

    “One puff, and your life is ruined.”

  8. Degenerates abuse drugs and commit crimes because they are degenerates. It is the fact that they are degerates that makes them abuse drugs and steal not the drugs. I even take issue with the high price of drugs making addicts steal to feed their habbits. That is bullshit. Lots of people use drugs and manage to live productive lives and not spend every dime on drugs or steal. Those people steal because they are thieves not because they are addicts.

  9. Lamar,
    Yeah back in the day, folks use to use booze for “medicinal” purposes. But Oscar Wilde knew the score:

    Alcohol, when taken in sufficient quantities, brings about all the effects of drunkenness

  10. 3. “Addicts steal to pay for their drugs.”

    Warty, there must be some truth to this, at least as applied to african-american women, as I have it on good authority that “black chicks will do anything for cocaine.”

  11. “In any case, it seems unlikely that marijuana made them do it.”

    Oh, I don’t know. The first thing I like to do after toking up is beating the crap out of an old lady.

    Then I can relax.

  12. “Look, all I’m saying is if you still wanna smoke pot then be prepared to spend a lot of time laughing with your friends.”

  13. Oh, I don’t know. The first thing I like to do after toking up is beating the crap out of an old lady.

    For me that’s a Sunday morning, right after church.

  14. “WARNING: Smoking marihuana may cause you to think that 7-11 nachos are actually pretty good.”

  15. Seems to me that the more relevant number to this discussion is the proportion of users of drugs who commit crimes (besides use/possession of said drugs), not the proportion of people who are arrested who use drugs. Where is the study showing how 90% + of drug users have jobs, lives, families, etc. and are not fucked up criminal losers?

  16. “They call ’em fingers, but i never seen ’em fing.

    [hours pass]

    Oh, there they go.”

  17. How about Option No. 7?

    7. Crime makes people do drugs (e.g, to suppress guilt feelings, assuage fear of arrest and resulting brutality at the hands of the police, etc.)

    Post hoc ergo propter hoc!

  18. The publication of a report that “reaffirms” the “link” between drugs and crime does not seem to be encouraging for those who thought that the Obama Administration was inching away from the demonization of substances. So far, outside of cosmetic changes, I see little sign that the “Not War on Drugs” is going to be that much different than the “War on Drugs.”

  19. “WARNING: Smoking marihuana may cause you to think that 7-11 nachos are actually pretty good.”

    Naw, man, the hot dogs. All slathered in that weird red chili-esque crap and the same cheese they put on nachos. That’s good late night eatin’, right there.

  20. That’s good late night eatin’, right there.

    True that. Of course, you don’t need to be high — vodka (or even Corona, in sufficient amounts) works just fine to make them delicious.

  21. Of course, you don’t need to be high — vodka (or even Corona, in sufficient amounts) works just fine to make them delicious.

    The anti-nausea effects of marijuana help out quite a bit with 7-11 food.

  22. True that. Of course, you don’t need to be high — vodka (or even Corona, in sufficient amounts) works just fine to make them delicious.

    Drinking Black and Tans all night works good for me. Of course, one of the many odd things about living in Houston: no 7-11s. The wife and I stop in them on vacations so she can get Slurpees and I can get hot dogs. You get funny looks buying a Slurpee in Detroit in January when it’s snowing.

  23. You vacation in Detroit, T? What, are you into some kind of post-apocalyptic adventure tourism thing?

  24. You vacation in Detroit, T? What, are you into some kind of post-apocalyptic adventure tourism thing?

    What, you didn’t want to be Mad Max when you grew up? Detroit’s perfect for that kind of wish-fulfillment, plus you can get cheap airfare.

  25. omg what a lame study. This study ignores so much data, such as:

    1. The amount of drug use of arrestees compared to the amount of drug use of the REST OF THE POPULATION

    2. The exclusion of legal recreational drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, prescription.

    Without comparative data, the study means absolutely nothing.

  26. There’s also a link between shark attacks and ice cream sales.

  27. Here are a few:

    First offenders sent to prison learn to be criminals.

    Getting a good job is much more difficult for even one-time offenders, given the restrictions on hiring people with a drug record.

  28. When pure pharmaceutical grade Bayer heroin was legally sold in local pharmacies and grocery stores for pennies per dose the term “drug-related crime” didn’t exist, and neither was the United States the most incarcerated nation in history.

    Nobody is suggesting that drugs are harmless and certainly youngsters must be educated about and deterred from their use. However the current system of prohibition does nothing to protect children and criminalises what would be otherwise law abiding citizens. Prohibition was expected to rid the world of drugs by now, but the drugs trade which is reckoned to be the second largest world trade after oil is totally in the hands of criminals. To continue with present policies is to accept and effectively tolerate the existence of the criminal gangs that control the trade.

  29. 4. Drugs make you stupid.

    Seriously, if weren’t for drugs and alcohol (usually leading to people who can’t keep their mouths shut), most crimes would probably go unsolved.

  30. Drug crime arises because people have to deal with criminals in order to get drugs.
    Put the cartels out of business.
    Let ordinary Americans (Californians?) grow a little marijuana in their own back yards.
    $100 per year for a permit for 12 plants.
    Would anybody go for it?

  31. I don’t need know stinking permit, why you always got to bring in gov’nment and their fees?

  32. I know FAR too many drug addicts who steal for the sole purpose of funding their addiction. And no, prohibition don’t work, neither has the Drug War! Nowadays, legal drugs used illegally are a BIG problem and deaths from painkillers, the ‘dones, now outnumber deaths from illegal drugs.

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