Compared with the general population, offenders report higher rates of drug use and problem drug users are more frequently found to be offenders. However, the relationship between drugs and crime is neither simple nor linear. Nor is it universal: many repeat offenders are not involved in drug use and many dependent drug users do not commit any crimes (other than drug use/possession, where it is criminalised). A range of factors and conditions lead offending and drug-using populations to follow a variety of pathways, each of which may express a specific connection (or not) between drugs and crime. It is however important to distinguish between a causal link between drugs and crime in terms of overall life pathway and one that pertains only to the specific situation in which a crime is committed. The latter is the type of link a definition of drug-related crime addresses.
The need to reduce drug-related crime is now recognised as an important policy objective in Europe. There is, however, a great deal of variation in what is meant by 'drug-related crime' across disciplines and professionals.
Although defining drug-related crime is a reductive exercise that cannot account for the whole complexity of the drug–crime nexus, a clear definition of the term 'drug-related crime' is an essential first step if we are to develop the methodologies needed to assess not only the true extent of this problem, but also the impact of policies and actions.
Based on international literature and evaluation practices, a definition encompassing four categories, is suggested here as an aid to conceptualising the issue of drug-related crime.
- Psychopharmacological crimes: crimes committed under the influence of a psychoactive substance, as a result of its acute or chronic use.
- Economic-compulsive crimes: crimes committed in order to obtain money (or drugs) to support drug use.
- Systemic crimes: crimes committed within the functioning of illicit drug markets, as part of the business of drug supply, distribution and use.
- Drug law offences: crimes committed in violation of drug (and other related) legislations.
Psychopharmacological crime — Although psychopharmacological violence is most strongly associated with alcohol use, illicit (acute or chronic) drug use, and particularly the use of stimulants, may lead to criminal behaviour by exacerbating existing psychopathological and social problems, or by increasing the risk of paranoid or psychotic episodes. It is also important to include in this category crimes induced by the victim's own drug use.
Economic compulsive crime — Economically motivated crimes have often been considered an inherent consequence of drug dependence, and a reduction in such crimes is usually seen as a measure of success for many interventions targeting dependent drug users. Indeed, dependence on an expensive substance can lead users to engage in criminal acts to obtain the money they need to fund their drug habit. They may resort to both consensual crimes, such as drug selling or prostitution (where criminalised), and acquisitive crimes (e.g. shoplifting, robbery, burglary). This category also includes the forging of prescriptions and the burgling of pharmacies by drug users.
Systemic crime — Drug markets, because of their illicit status, sustain certain types of crime other than those associated with drug supply and distribution, which may deeply affect a neighbourhood or a local community. Systemic criminality refers mainly to violent acts (e.g. assaults, homicides) committed within the functioning of illicit drug markets, as part of the business of drug supply, distribution and use. Indeed, violence as a strategy of control is used in various situations including territorial disputes, punishment for fraud, debt collection and clashes with the police.
Drug law offences — Violations of drug laws account for a significant proportion of law enforcement and criminal justice resources and, by drawing resources away from other areas, may impact on the commission of other crimes. They may include offences such as drug use, possession, cultivation, production, importation and trafficking, but also other related offences such as illicit manufacture/trafficking of precursors or money laundering. Drug driving (driving under the influence of drugs) offences are also theoretically included in this category.
Data on the first three types of crime, including on crimes linked to drug use and drug users such as property crimes and public nuisance, are rare or patchy, usually gathered through ad hoc local studies that are difficult to extrapolate and not routinely conducted. In practice, routine data are only available in Europe on initial reports of drug law offences (not including drug driving offences), mainly from the police. An analysis of these data is provided under the section in the Annual report 2008 on drug-related crime.
For a discussion of drug-related crime, refer to Drugs in focus 16: ‘Drugs and crime – a complex relationship’.
The EMCDDA has also been collecting and analysing data on the prevalence of drug use in the prison population. Most of them come from ad-hoc local studies that are difficult to extrapolate.
A mapping exercise of all data generated by law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system was carried by the EMCDDA in the EU member states in 2000-2001. Entitled‘Information systems based on law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system’, it provides an overview of the organisation of drug law enforcement and the criminal justice in each participating countries, and map out the various sets of routine drug-related data generated at each level of the criminal justice process.