Theories On The Drugscrime Relationship

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Inciardi (1986) has noted that numerous theories have been posited to explain the drugs-crime relationship. Many of these theories have dealt with the etiology of drug use and crime. Early etiological theories tended to be overly simplistic, focusing on what Inciardi termed the "chicken-egg" question: Which came first, drugs or crime? This question polarized the drugs-crime field for over fifty years. It typically reflected two mutually exclusive positions: that addicts were criminals to begin with, and addiction was simply another manifestation of a deviant lifestyle; or that addicts were not criminals but, rather, were forced into committing crime to support their drug habits.

Reflecting a middle-ground position, more recent theories argue for a diversity among narcotic addicts with regard to the predispositional characteristics and motives underlying drug-related criminal behavior. For example, on the basis of their research with narcotic addicts, Nurco and his associates (1991b) concluded that there is considerable variation among addicts in their propensity toward criminal activity. Some addicts had been heavily involved in crime prior to addiction, whereas others were extensively involved in crime only when addicted.

In the late 1970s, drugs-crime theories became increasingly complex, partly because studies tended to have fewer methodological problems that interfered with the measurement of both drug use and crime. With improvements in techniques, researchers gradually become more aware of heterogeneity among drug abusers on many dimensions, including the type and severity of drug-use patterns and related criminal activity. Also, more recent studies have found that drug use and crime, in most instances, do not initially have a causal relationship but, rather, are often the joint result of multiple influences. Among the many factors contributing to drug use and/or crime are those involving the fam ily, such as lack of parental supervision, parental rejection, family conflict, lack of discipline, and parental deviance; association with deviant peers; school dropout, failure, and discipline problems; and early antisocial behavior. Consistent with the notion that all drug abusers are not alike, varying combinations of factors probably contribute to different patterns of deviant behavior in individuals at risk.

However, as Inciardi and his associates (1993a) have noted, some limitations of these theories remain. Most theories discuss drug abuse only as one of several manifestations of delinquency. Further, as in earlier years, the primary concern has been with the etiology of deviant behavior. Very little attention has been paid to explaining events that occur after the onset of drug use and criminal behavior, specifically how certain types of drug abuse increase the frequency of criminal activity. Finally, theories have typically focused on adolescence, without incorporating attributes and events that influence behavior during childhood and adulthood.

Among the most prominent theories in the drugs-crime field is that of Paul Goldstein (1986, 1989) regarding the relationship between drugs and violence. Goldstein's theory is based on his numerous ethnographic accounts of violent drug-related acts obtained from both perpetrators and victims in New York City. According to this theory, drugs and violence can be related in three separate ways: psychopharmacologically, economic-com-pulsively, and systemically. Within the psycho-pharmacological model, violent crime results from the short- or long-term effects of the ingestion of particular substances, most notably crack-cocaine and heroin. According to the economic-compulsive model, violent crime is committed as a means to obtain money to purchase drugs, primarily expensive addictive drugs such as heroin and cocaine. The systemic model posits that drug-related violence results from the traditionally aggressive patterns of interaction found at various levels within systems of illicit-drug distribution. Examples include killing or assaulting someone for failure to pay debts; for selling ''bad,'' or adulterated, drugs; or for transgression on one's drug-dealing ''turf.''

Several key studies have analyzed data in the light of Goldstein's concepts. In a study of 578 homicides in Manhattan in 1981, 38 percent of the male and 14 percent of the female victims were murdered as a result of drug-related activity (Tardiff et al., 1986). The investigators contended that these percentages were higher than those previously reported in the United States. In a subsequent study by Goldstein and his coworkers (1989) involving 414 homicides in New York City that occurred over an eight-month period, 53 percent were classified by the police and researchers as being drug-related. In both studies, most of the drug-related homicides were attributed to systemic causes. Interestingly, in the former study, most of the homicides involved heroin, whereas in the latter study, most involved crack-cocaine.

Drug Use and High-Rate, Serious Criminality. As indicated earlier, the onset of illicit drug use typically does not result in the onset of criminal behavior. In most cases, both drug use and crime begin in the early teens. Generally, the less serious the drug or crime, the earlier the age at onset of involvement. For example, among illicit drugs, marijuana is more commonly used at a younger age than are sedatives or tranquilizers, and these drugs, in turn, are typically used at a younger age than are ''hard'' drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. Similarly, minor forms of crime (e.g., shoplifting, vandalism) have an earlier onset than more serious types of crimes, such as assault, robbery, and drug dealing.

Most marijuana users do not become heroin addicts, and most youths who commit minor property crimes do not subsequently become involved in more serious offenses. In both instances, the salient variable appears to be age of onset—the younger the individual is when first using a ''soft'' drug or committing a minor crime, the more likely he or she will move on to more serious forms of deviance. In general, the more deviant the environment (family, peers, community), the earlier the onset of deviance.

Since 1980, independent studies have identified several core characteristics of high-rate, serious offenders. According to Chaiken and Chaiken (1990), these studies have consistently found that predatory individuals tend to commit many different types of crime, including violent crime, at high rates, and to abuse many types of drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Also, research findings have consistently reported that among heroin addicts, prisoners, and seriously delinquent youth, the younger one is at onset of heroin and/or cocaine addiction, the more frequent, persistent, and severe one's criminal activity tends to be. In these studies, individuals with early onsets of addiction (typically before age 16) tended to abuse several types of drugs and to have disproportionately high rates of several types of crime, regardless of addiction status. Such findings have been observed in various geographic locations and are independent of ethnic group. These results are similar for both males and females, with one notable exception: females with early onsets of addiction are more likely to commit prostitution, shoplifting, and other property crimes at high rates, whereas males with early onsets are more likely to commit violent acts.

Chaiken and Chaiken's 1982 study of over two thousand male prisoners in three states was significant for at least two reasons. First, it challenged the long-held perception that drug abusers were less violent than other arrestees. While 65 percent of Chaiken and Chaiken's sample reported having used illicit drugs during the one- to two-year period preceding the arrest leading to the most recent incarceration, an even higher proportion (83%) of high-rate, serious offenders, identified as ''violent predators,'' had used drugs during the same period. Among the offenders studied, violent predators were also most likely to have had histories of ''hard'' drug use (including heavy multiple-drug use and heroin addiction) and to have had early onsets of several types of drug use and criminal activity. Second, and perhaps more important, the information on an offender's drug history was more likely than official arrest records to be related to the amount and seriousness of self-reported criminal activity. As in the results of drug-crime studies discussed earlier, official arrest data were poor indicators of the type, amount, and severity of crime committed by these respondents.

These findings suggest a potential for using an individual's history of illicit drug use, including age of onset, in identifying high-rate, dangerous offenders. However, this approach has several limitations. First, a general caution is in order whenever findings based on aggregate data are applied to the individual case. Second, although self-reports of drug use and crime are generally valid when obtained from individuals who are either at large in the community, entering a drug-abuse treatment program, or already incarcerated, they tend to be less accurate for individuals being evaluated for initial disposition in the criminal-justice system. Approximately one out of every two new arrestees identified as drug users by urine testing conceal their recent drug use, even in a voluntary, confidential interview having no bearing on their correctional status.

(SEE ALSO: Antisocial Personality; Conduct Disorder; Crime and Alcohol; Families and Drug Use; Family Violence and Substance Abuse)


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David N. Nurco Timothy W. Kinlock Thomas E. Hanlon Revised by Frederick K. Grittner

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