Dana C. Brothers
The John Howard Society of Newfoundland


The terms drug-related and alcohol-related crime are commonly used by the general public, policy makers, politicians, corrections staff and the media to describe crimes that are believed to be caused by the consumption of illicit drugs and/or alcohol. Underlying these terms is an assumption that the use of such substances actually causes criminal behavior. This assumption is significant because it influences both drug and corrections policy in Canada. However, effective policy is based on evidence, not assumptions. Empirical research is finding that the relationship between substance abuse and crime is “…complex and recursive” (McBride and McCoy 1993:257) and that “…for the majority of drug using offenders, criminal behavior preceded use of illicit drugs though initiation into drug use increases their level of involvement in crime” (Newcombe 2002:3).

The purpose of this article is to answer the following questions: What does empirical research tell us about the relationship between substance abuse and crime? And, are our current policies informed by this evidence? This article begins by presenting several reasons to question the assumption that drugs cause crime, starting with personal observations taken from the author’s work as a clinician in a community corrections rehabilitation program in Newfoundland. The second part reviews existing research on the relationship between drugs, alcohol and crime. Several possible explanations for the high correlation between substance abuse and criminal behavior are discussed. The third section explores the question: Are we using evidence to guide policy? In this section, drug and corrections policies in Canada are evaluated based on their effects on crime rates. This leads to a further set of questions: If drug use is not causing crime in the ways we assume, are our current drug and corrections policies really effective in lowering crime rates? And, could the strict prohibition of certain drugs be a contributing factor to crime in Canada? Finally, this article concludes by offering some suggestions for developing sound, evidence-based drug and corrections policy in Canada.


Clinical Observations

Many assumptions that are not based on reason or fact exist because we have beliefs that are so entrenched in our culture that we are not even consciously aware of their existence. When I completed my education and training as a social worker, I accepted the assumption that the use of illicit substances causes criminal behavior. I first began to question the assumption of a causal link between substance abuse and crime while attending a presentation by Dr. James Bonta, of the Solicitor General’s Office of Canada, on what the research was beginning to tell him and his colleagues about the main predictors of future criminal behavior. The data they compiled indicates that offenders who had a previous history of criminal behavior, had peer and family support for criminal activity, held “anti-social” beliefs and attitudes and demonstrated “anti-social” personality traits had the highest rates of recidivism. Their research also indicated that programs that focused on shifting pro-criminal attitudes and associates and coping with anti-social personality traits had the greatest success in lowering recidivism. Before learning of this research I believed, as did many of my colleagues, that programs that focused on increasing employment and reducing substance abuse would assist my clients in avoiding future criminal behavior.