Drug dependency and crime: is there a connection?

People who are dependent on one or more drugs strongly feel the need to consume said drugs, because without them either their bodies would fail or life would become for them painfully empty. They need money to buy the drugs, but cannot hold down a job because of the drugs. Theft is a quick and easy way of making money, so many drug dependent people turn to crime. Therefore drug dependency causes crime, and we need to be tough on the causes of crime. At least, this is what many people think.

The truth is not so straightforward. Researchers at the University of Manchester surveyed 1380 people seeking drug treatment across England. Of them 40% admitted (anonymously) to committing acquisitive crime (that is, robbery or burglary) at least once in the previous month. The researchers admit that rates of acquisitive crime among drug users are high, and that problematic crack cocaine use in particular is associated with crime.

However the researchers found that people were more likely to commit crime if they were younger, poorer and had “indicators of a chaotic life style and complex needs.” Clearly drug dependent people who commit acquisitive crime don’t simply do it because they are drug dependent. The researchers concluded: “Behavioural and demographic factors were associated more strongly with acquisitive crime than drug use expenditure, suggesting that the need to finance drug use is not necessarily the main factor driving acquisitive offending by drug users.”

This means that the drug dependency isn’t irrelevant to the acquisitive crime, but it does suggest that most of the people would have faced the same pressures to commit acquisitive crime, regardless of whether they were drug dependent or not.

The myth that people who are drug dependent are also necessarily thieves is a key element of the stigma that drug dependent people experience. Stigma is often more damaging than the drug abuse itself, since it can make people feel isolated and afraid to ask for help. This research resoundingly debunks this myth, combats the stigma and paves the way for a more humane approach to drug dependency. It’s high time that society at large recognises that the idea that drug dependency causes crime is just an inaccurate stereotype.

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