Offending and AOD Use

Although substance use and crime are highly correlated amongst offending populations, the relationship between drug use and crime is complex, and widely debated. Mernard, Mihalic and Huizinga (2001) outline four competing theories of this relationship:

  • Drug use leads to crime
  • Crime leads to drug use
  • Drug use and crime influence each other in a pattern of mutual causation
  • Drug use and crime are either spuriously related or result from common underlying issues

The authors conclude that the onset of offending largely occurs before the commencement of drug use and hence drug use itself likely does not cause crime. The relationship between drug use and crime appears to change over an individual’s lifetime, with a stronger link between drug use and crime during adolescence. However, drug use and crime in adolescence is linked to the continuation of these behaviours during adulthood, with adolescent offenders more likely to participate in serious drug use during adulthood (Mernard et al., 2001).

Once offending has commenced however, drug use is influenced by crime and crime is influenced by drug use, having mutual contributory effects on each other. An example of this interaction is evident in a study of adolescent drug use and crime, which found that for some individuals, drug use could become an additional expense that is funded through criminal activity (Simpson, 2003). Additionally, psychopharmacological reasons such as being intoxicated or ‘hanging out for drugs’, are commonly cited as contributory factors to drug-crime relationships (Payne & Gaffney, 2012).

Whilst some crime is caused by drug use and some drug use is caused by crime, ultimately it appears that drug use and crime both result from several similar criminogenic lifestyle factors (Link & Hamilton, 2017).

Criminogenic issues underlying drug use-crime relationships:

  • Personality traits (e.g. impulsivity or neuroticism)
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Association with pro-criminal peers
  • Anti-social cognitions
  • Family and marital difficulties
  • Poor emotional/social supports
  • Poor school/work performance (e.g. unemployment)
  • Lack of involvement in pro-social activities (e.g. hobbies, sport)

While treatments addressing drug use and crime are important given their mutually interacting effects, the common underlying factors of these behaviours should also be a focus of treatment, given their association with drug use and crime. As both drug use and crime are common symptoms of criminogenic lifestyle factors, these core factors must be addressed in order to reduce a criminogenic lifestyle.


Link, N. W., & Hamilton, L. K. (2017). The reciprocal lagged effects of substance use and recidivism in a prisoner reentry context. Health & justice5(1), 8.

Payne J & Gaffney A. (2012) How much crime is drug or alcohol related? Self-reported attributions of police detainees. Trends & issues in crime and criminal justice No. 439. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Menard, S., Mihalic, S., Huizinga, D. (2001) Drugs and crime revisited, Justice Quarterly, 18:2, 269-299.

Simpson, M., (2003). The relationship between drug use and crime: a puzzle inside an enigma. International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 14, Issue 4, 307 – 319.

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