Drugs and Crime Essay

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Drugs and crime are undeniably linked. Not only are manufacturing, distributing, and purchasing drugs illegal, but the misuse of drugs often increases the need and likelihood of committing additional criminal acts. Overwhelming evidence indicates a connection between drug misuse, criminal activity, and arrest. However, the nature of the relationship is complex, and no one explanation or pathway accounts for everyone’s experiences with drug misuse and crime.

The criminalization of drug use has long been the official policy of the U.S. government. The prevailing viewpoint of the addiction that drives drug use and the associated criminal activity is largely through a criminal, rather than medical, paradigm; the people addicted to drugs who commit crimes are not sick or ill but offenders in need of punishment, not treatment.

Characterizing the U.S. War on Drugs are increased penalties for crimes associated with so-called hard drugs and narcotics. With the crack epidemic of the 1980s largely subsided, today law enforcement pursues not only drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and marijuana but also methamphetamine and designer drugs such as Ecstasy. The focus of criminal justice policy is on crimes committed in association with drug use, whether driven by the pharmacological effect of the drug, an economic need to obtain more of the drug, or violence committed while participating in the illegal drug market. Perhaps the most significant characteristic of the War on Drugs is its well-documented differential impact on society’s poor and nonwhite.

History of Drug Use as Crime

The criminalization of U.S. drug use parallels the sociopolitical events in the country’s history. Drug use as a federal crime began with the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 that taxed the manufacture, importation, and distribution of opiates and coca. Motivated by the government’s desire to control opium users after seizing the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War, Congress expanded the act in 1924 to include the importation of heroin. At that time the United States was experiencing an influx of immigrants who brought their culture, including their patterns of drug use, with them. Asian immigrants introduced opium to the United States, and Mexican immigrants brought marijuana. With the societal belief that blacks favored cocaine, the false image of a crazed black man, high on cocaine and raping white women, helped fuel the public’s moral panic.

The government’s leading spokesperson for the criminalization of drug use was Harry J. Anslinger, who served as the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, later the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), from 1930 to 1962, and fervently promoted the criminal model of addiction. Through a series of improper research studies, false testimony given to Congress, and successful use as a legal defense, marijuana became known for inducing insanity and homicidal tendencies in users. The 1937 Marijuana Tax Act made it illegal to distribute marijuana without a stamp or license from the federal government. Because the government would not issue stamps, this essentially made marijuana illegal, punishable by a significant fine and prison term. The Boggs Act of 1951, passed during the cold war and while the country was fighting the Korean War and motivated by fear that the enemy was using drugs to sabotage the country’s youth, increased penalties for drug crimes fourfold. The Daniel Act of 1956 followed the first televised Senate hearings on the topic of organized crime in the United States and increased penalties eightfold. In Virginia, for example, conviction of rape mandated a 10-year sentence, whereas drug possession mandated a 20-year sentence.

Despite the increasingly severe punishment of drug crimes, use of illegal drugs skyrocketed in the 1960s as the country faced cultural upheaval and challenges to the status quo. President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, referred to as the President’s Crime Commission, and comprising criminal justice experts, members of law enforcement, and authors from across the country, culled scientific research regarding crime and the criminal justice system response. According to the commission’s 1967 report, crime resulted from poverty and social disorganization, thus requiring increased integration and services to provide support to offenders and those at risk of offending. During the 1960s and early 1970s these policy recommendations began to take hold within the criminal justice system. The seemingly enlightened tone of the report and the political era may have influenced passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, more commonly known as the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the first piece of legislation to reduce penalties associated with drugs. It also classified drugs, except tobacco and alcohol, according to their medical use and potential for misuse.

Shortly after passage of the Controlled Substances Act, 1964 presidential candidate Barry Goldwater inserted the fear of street crime into national politics. Although Goldwater lost to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon returned to the message in 1968 and laid the foundation for a get-tough era in the White House that culminated with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Reagan declared a national war on drugs in 1982 and called for its renewal in 1986. The Reagan and first Bush administrations increased funding for law enforcement budgets, pouring resources into international drug interdiction and domestic programs that ranged from increased drug testing in the workplace to assigning more law enforcement officers to pursue drug crimes. President Reagan initiated the expansion of criminalization to private or casual drug use, arguing that society should not have to bear the burden of anyone’s addiction. However, with prisons funded by tax dollars, the public did not escape responsibility for drug addicts. Between 1985 and 1995 the number of state prisoners convicted of a drug crime increased 478 percent and accounted for 35 percent of the total increase in the overall prison population during that time. At the federal level, drug offenses increased 446 percent and accounted for 74 percent of the increase during the same period.

The federal government maintained pace with the changing drug scene. A powerful tool in that effort is the Controlled Substances Analogue Enforcement Act of 1986 that enables drug enforcement officials to bypass traditional administrative requirements and immediately classify a substance as illegal. The Chemical Diversion and Trafficking Act of 1988 empowers the DEA to regulate the distribution of the chemicals and equipment often used to manufacture illegal drugs. Similarly, the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996, in addition to increasing the penalties associated with manufacturing and distributing the drug, regulates the chemicals and equipment most commonly used in its production. More recently, GHB, often referred to as the “date rape drug,” and the weight-loss drug ephedrine, were classified as controlled substances.

The control of drugs and crime expanded beyond any one political orientation. The 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, sponsored and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, increased penalties for drug crimes and provided states with funding if their inmates convicted of violent crimes served at least 85 percent of their sentence. Despite society’s concern with violent crime, contemporary drug laws are such that people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses can serve sentences longer than those who commit violent street crimes.

Ample evidence shows that the increased penalties for drug crimes have had disproportionately negative effects based on race and class. Differential punishment of drug users, based on the type of drug, as incorporated into the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, established harsh mandatory sentences for possessing less than $100 worth of crack, a relatively cheap drug viewed as favored by poor urban dwellers. Until 2007, federal law set the sentence for possession of 1 gram of crack at the equivalent of that for 100 grams of cocaine, an expensive drug favored by wealthier, white drug users. Research shows that differential treatment continues in the courtroom, where, among those convicted of drug felonies in state court, whites are less likely than nonwhites to be sent to prison and generally more likely to receive shorter sentences when they are punished. Nearly half of all state prison inmates serving time for drug offenses are black; whites and Hispanics each make up about one quarter of state prison inmates. Nonwhite drug users would appear to be over-represented in the criminal justice system as, according to self-report studies, nearly three quarters of drug users are white; blacks represent approximately 15 percent and Hispanics about 10 percent of U.S. drug users.

Drug-Related Crime

Violation of drug laws is not the only intersection between drug misuse and crime. Whether drug users are viewed as criminal or as suffering from addiction, crime perpetrated by them is not as uniform as once thought. Not until the 1970s and 1980s did research become sophisticated enough to reveal the range of differences among drug users. As the types of drugs people use vary, so do the types of crimes committed. Most research on drug-related crime has concentrated on heroin, as it was found that hallucinogens and marijuana do not consistently increase criminal activity; the research is mixed regarding tranquilizers and stimulants.

Another focus of research regarding drug misuse and crime has been on violent offenses. The most widely accepted model outlines a three-pronged relationship between drug use and violent crime. The psychopharmacological or biochemical effects of drug use can lead to violence, as can the economic need or compulsion created by addiction; violence can also result from the illegal activities related to drug markets. According to the National Institute of Justice, in 2002 approximately 25 percent of convicted property and drug offenders reported that they committed their crimes to get money for drugs, while 5 percent of both violent and public order offenders reported an economic motivation. Authorities generally agree that most drug-related violent crime is the result of the prohibition against drugs, rather than the drugs themselves. Support for this comes from the violence and criminal enterprise surrounding alcohol that flourished during the years of Prohibition and quickly dissipated after its repeal.

From 1986 until 2004, under the Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring program, the Justice Department collected information about the illegal drug use of arrestees. In nearly 40 cities across the country, urine testing for illegal drug use during the 72 hours preceding arrest revealed that approximately two thirds had at least one illegal drug in their bodies at the time of arrest; females had slightly higher rates of use. In 2000, for example, men were generally more likely than women to test positive for marijuana, whereas women were more likely to test positive for cocaine. During the same year, methamphetamine use was more common in the West and used more frequently by women than men.

Alcohol and Crime

Although not a target in the War on Drugs, alcohol use strongly relates to criminal activity and is the only drug regularly shown to increase aggression. Instead of violations of drug laws or offenses associated with its distribution, alcohol-driven crime is most frequently interpersonal and violent. Approximately 40 percent of violent crimes and fatal car accidents involve alcohol. Two thirds of violent crime victims attacked by an intimate reported alcohol was a factor in the offense. Among domestic violence victims, approximately 75 percent of offenders used alcohol. Violence results not only because of intoxication but also through learned expectations about how drinking and violence are paired.

Unlike prohibitive drug laws, those regulating alcohol deal primarily with the legal age of consumption. After Prohibition, most states adopted a minimum legal drinking age of 21. When 29 states lowered the age between 1970 and 1975, researchers found car crashes significantly increased among teens in those states. In response to mounting public pressure, most but not all states returned the age to 21. The federal government enacted the Uniform Drinking Age Act in 1984, stipulating receipt of federal transportation funds as dependent on a minimum state legal drinking age of 21. Despite such laws, underage drinkers consistently report it is relatively easy to obtain alcohol.

Drug Treatment

Mandatory or involuntary treatment ordered by the criminal justice system is a much debated issue. Research shows coerced treatment is generally effective but that issues of motivation are important for determining individual success. An often-cited RAND Corporation study found that treatment is 10 times more cost-effective than efforts at interdiction in reducing the societal costs of cocaine addiction, including crime and loss of productivity. Recently, several states adopted alternatives to incarceration, including mandatory treatment, for nonviolent offenders who misuse drugs.

Because of the heterogeneity among drug-using offenders and the range of challenges in employment, education, and health care that drug users face, a variety of interventions exist. Drug treatment for offenders may take place in residential or inpatient programs, in community-based outpatient programs, or in programs administered in prison. These intervention programs vary greatly in terms of the types of services provided and the quality of those services. Programs differ in the extent of staff training, the levels of rewards and punishment incorporated, whether psychological and medical care is provided, and whether medication, such as methadone, is administered. No single, specific approach consistently results in success for all drug users; rather, programs offering a variety of integrated services, those of longer duration, and those administered in the community, not prison, are generally more effective. Overall, treatment for incarcerated addicts appears to have decreased in recent years.

Since 1989, drug courts have addressed the multiplicity of issues faced by drug-using offenders by combining supervision, drug testing, and treatment governed by a system of rewards and punishment. Patterned after a social work caseload model, the courts are effectively coordinating multiple services and decreasing rates of relapse and recidivism. However, little support from the public presently exists for drug legalization and treatment or for clean needle exchanges. An alternative to the prohibition policies of the United States is the harm reduction approach favored in Western Europe, Australia, and Canada.


  1. Boyum, David and Mark Kleiman. 2003. “Breaking the Drug-Crime Link.” The Public Interest 152:19-38.
  2. Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2005. “Drugs and Crime Facts.” Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.bjs.gov/content/dcf/contents.cfm).
  3. McBride, Duane C., Curtis J. VanderWaal, and Yvonne M. Terry-McElrath. 2003. The Drugs-Crime Wars: Past, Present, and Future Directions in Theory, Policy, and Program Interventions. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/194616d.pdf).
  4. National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. 2006. “‘You’ve Got Drugs!’ Prescription Drug Pushers on the Internet: 2006 Update.” New York: CASA. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/youve-got-drugs-perscription-drug-pushers-internet-2006).
  5. Roth, Jeffrey. 1994. Psychoactive Substances and Violence. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/govpubs/psycviol.htm).
  6. Rydell, C. Peter and Susan Everingham. 1994. Controlling Cocaine. Santa Monica, CA: RAND. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monograph_reports/2006/RAND_MR331.pdf).
  7. Sabol, William J. 2007. Prisoners in 2006. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved March 29, 2017 (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p06.pdf).

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