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Drugs and Crime: Behavioral Aspects

The Drugs-violence Connection

It has been a recurring theme over the years that drugs instigate users to acts of wanton violence. This has especially been the case since the mid-1980s with arguments about cocaine and crack. In early studies of drug users, however, it was clear that most addict criminals were nonviolent, with their offenses focusing primarily on income-generating crimes. Beginning in the 1970s, however, this tendency appeared to be changing. Based on the growing number of studies of "poly-drug abusers"—an emergent cohort of multiple drug users that had evolved from the drug revolution of the 1960s—it became apparent that a new and different breed of heroin user was living on the streets of American cities. They not only used heroin, but other drugs as well. Most importantly, their criminality was "situational" in nature. Rather than repeatedly committing burglaries, they lacked any type of criminal specialization. They engaged in a wide variety of crimes—including assaults, muggings, and armed robberies—selected according to the nuances of situational opportunity.

During the 1980s, Paul J. Goldstein of the University of Illinois conceptualized the whole phenomenon of drugs and violence into a useful theoretical framework encompassing three models of drug-related violence—psychopharmacological, economically compulsive, and systemic. His psychopharmacological model of violence suggests that some individuals, as the result of short-term or long-term ingestion of specific substances, may become excitable, irrational, and exhibit violent behavior. The economically compulsive model of violence holds that some drug users engage in economically oriented violent crime to support costly drug use. The systemic model of violence maintains that violent crime is intrinsic to the very involvement with any illicit substance. As such, systemic violence refers to the traditionally aggressive patterns of interaction within the systems of illegal drug trafficking and distribution.

The early statements attributing violent behavior to drug use generally focused on the psychopharmacological argument. More recently this model has been applied to cocaine, barbiturates, and PCP, with a major focus on the amphetamines, "crank," and crack. In study after study, it was reported that the chronic use of amphetamines produced paranoid thought patterns and delusions that led to homicide and other acts of violence. The same was said about cocaine. The conclusion is a correct one, although it did not apply to every amphetamine and cocaine user. Violence was most typical among the hard-core, chronic users.

Contrary to everything that has been said over the years about the quieting effects of narcotic drugs, recent research has demonstrated that there may be more psychopharmacological violence associated with heroin use than that of any other illegal drug. Goldstein's studies of heroin-using prostitutes in New York City during the 1970s found a link between the effects of the withdrawal syndrome and violent crime. The impatience and irritability caused by withdrawal motivated a number of prostitutes to rob their clients rather than provide them with sexual services. This phenomenon was found to be common in Miami, and not only among prostitutes but with other types of criminals as well. And to these can be added the many incidents of violence precipitated by the irritability and paranoia associated with crack use.

The economically compulsive model of violence best fits the aggressive behavior of contemporary heroin, cocaine, and crack users. Among 573 narcotics users interviewed in Miami, for example, more than a one-third engaged in a total of 5,300 robberies over a one-year period as a source of income. Some of these were "strongarm" robberies or muggings with the victim attacked from the rear and overpowered, while the majority occurred at gunpoint. In fact, over a one-fourth of the respondents in this study used a firearm in the commission of a crime. A similar phenomenon was found among a cohort of 429 nonnarcotics users in Miami, with weapon use most common among those who were primarily cocaine users.

In the systemic model, acts of drug-related violence can occur for a variety of reasons: territorial disputes between rival drug dealers; assaults and homicides committed within dealing and trafficking hierarchies as means of enforcing normative codes; robberies of drug dealers, often followed by unusually violent retaliations; elimination of informers; punishment for selling adulterated, phony, or otherwise "bad" drugs; retribution for failing to pay one's debts; and general disputes over drugs or drug paraphernalia.

Most street drug users report having been either the perpetrator or victim of drug-related violence, and many women drug users reported over the years that they were the victims of rape at the hands of drug dealers.

Violence associated with disputes over drugs has been common to the drug scene probably since its inception. Two friends come to blows because one refuses to give the other a "taste." A husband beats his wife because she raided his "stash." A woman stabs her boyfriend because he did not "cop" enough drugs for her too. A cocaine injector kills another for stealing his only set of "works." In short, systemic violence seems to be endemic to the parallel worlds of drug dealing, drug taking, and drug seeking.

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