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Drugs and Crime: Behavioral Aspects

Early Research Initiatives

Perhaps the first empirical effort in behalf of the drugs/crime linkage was undertaken by C. E. Sandoz, which examined the drug-seeking behaviors of some ninety-seven male and thirty-three female morphinists who passed through the Municipal Court of Boston in 1920. His conclusions suggested that the majority of the subjects studied had become criminal as a result of their addiction, but at the same time, there were others who were criminals first. Less than a half decade later, Dr. Wilson Kolb's analysis of 181 cases suggested that those addicts who were also habitual law violators tended to have been either actual or potential offenders prior to their addiction, and among a quantity of others, the offenses committed were principally for violations of the narcotic laws. Furthermore, an absence of aggressive crimes was generally characteristic of the criminal records of both groups studied.

The analyses of Sandoz and Kolb were the first to offer conclusions based upon concrete data, and in differentiating between the two sets of narcotic addicts with their corresponding patterns of criminality, the authors provided a foundation upon which the crucial issues of the drugs and crime controversy were to evolve. Essentially, these issues involved four general ideologies:

  1. that addicts ought to be the object of vigorous police activity since the majority are members of a criminal element and drug addiction is simply one of the later phases in their criminal careers;
  2. that addicts prey upon legitimate society and the effects of their drugs do indeed predispose them to serious criminal transgressions;
  3. that addicts are essentially law-abiding citizens who are forced to steal in order to adequately support their drug habits; and,
  4. that addicts are not necessarily criminals, but they are forced to associate with an underworld element that tends to maintain control over the distribution of illicit drugs.

The notion that addicts ought to be the objects of vigorous police activity was a posture that was actively and relentlessly taken by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and other law enforcement groups. Their argument was fixed on a notion of criminality, since their own observations suggested that the majority of the addicts encountered were members of the underworld and addiction was simply a component of their criminal careers. In support of this view, an early report of the Bureau of Narcotics (1940) highlighted that the overwhelming majority of narcotics users indeed had criminal histories that preceded their careers in addiction by as much as eight to ten years. Furthermore, the records of 119 trafficker-addicts were cited, indicating that 83 percent of the cases had criminal records prior to addiction. The position taken by the bureau was firm and unconditional. Addicts, it emphasized, represented a destructive force confronting the people of America, and whatever the sources of their addiction might be, they were members of a highly subversive and antisocial group in the nation. And the approach of the bureau had some basis in reality. Having been charged with the enforcement of a law that prohibited the possession, sale, and distribution of a commodity that was sought by perhaps millions of the population, the bureau's agents were confronted by addicts only under the most dangerous of circumstances. It was not uncommon for officers to be killed or wounded in an arrest situation, and analyses of the criminal careers of many of the addicts apprehended suggested that the underworld was well represented among them.

While the Bureau of Narcotics (and now the Drug Enforcement Administration) remained silent on this issue in subsequent years, other police agencies continued to stress criminality in addiction. Joseph Coyle, a former commanding officer of the Narcotics Bureau of the New York City Police Department, demonstrated that of the 3,386 narcotic violators arrested in New York City during 1957, 84 percent had arrests for nonnarcotic violations prior to their first narcotic arrest.

In a contrasting perspective, researchers and clinicians offered data suggesting that in the majority of cases, criminal involvement occurs subsequent to the onset of addiction and that offense behavior represents the avenue of supporting one's addiction to drugs. During the 1930s, Bingham Dai found that as many as 81 percent of 1,047 Chicago arrestees became criminal subsequent to addiction, and in the following decade, a study of 1,036 patients at the U.S. Public Health Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, found that 75 percent of the cases were addicts first.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawDrugs and Crime: Behavioral Aspects - The Criminal Model Of Drug Abuse, The Harrison Act Of 1914, Early Research Initiatives, Contemporary Drugs And Crime Research