Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Aug 28, 2014)

Substance abuse

By Eve Field

Substance Abuse at the Centre of Crime

Substance abuse in its many forms has long been closely connected to both crime and the work of the criminal justice system. Not only does substance abuse often lead to the desperation or poor judgment that causes one to break the law, but it also results in the overpopulation of America's prisons and jails with citizens who ended up in a spiral of crime, in large part as result of their addiction. Drug-related murders are not uncommon realities in major Canadian cities and most homicides are either related to the dealings of the drug world or have a substance abuse element to them. As such, ensuring that effective programs are in place to address and decrease drug use, especially among the youth, are critical if society aims to not only tackle the crime, once it has been perpetrated, but also focus on prevention before lives are ruined or lost.  

The Connection Between Substance Abuse and Criminal Activity 

Statistics in both Canada and the United States strongly suggest that drug abuse and criminal activity are closely linked and this is especially true among young adults. For instance, in the US 95% of all violent crimes committed on university campuses are related to drug or alcohol abuse on the part of the perpetrator, while 90% of all rapes among college students are also tied to substance abuse. (1) Perhaps most indicative of the seriousness of this problem is the fact that 80% of American inmates used drugs prior to their arrest and 50% of all prisoners are considered to be clinically addicted, even after their incarceration. In Canada, the connection between drug and crime has been proved by a wide range of comprehensive studies, many of which were undertaken by researchers at Statistics Canada. One such study found that while cannabis-related offences have decreased, drug crimes in British Columbia are more prevalent than in any other province, with just over 600 drug offences reported for every 100,000 residents in Vancouver. (2) This is almost exactly twice as high as the national average. 

Homicides and Drug Use

Both alcohol and drug use are very common among those who are convicted of homicide. In the most recent study, based on statistics from 2012, fully 75% of all Canadians convicted of homicide had used either drugs or consumed excessive quantities of alcohol. Among Canadian youth, this figure stood at a staggering 92%. (3) This connection between serious crime and drug use has become such a pressing concern, that in 2001, Parliament convened a special Senate committee to explore this relationship. The Committee looked at a key theory on crime and drug use, which is based on the concept that the psycho-pharmacological effect of illicit substances on the human psyche is what is the driving force behind this connection. (4)  

Reducing Crime Through Better Health Care

If the psycho-pharmacological component is key and if drug abuse is such an important factor behind crime, then it also follows that better and more accessible treatment options can play an important role in preventing criminal activity, as well as in decreasing recidivism among committed offenders. Over 23 million Americans need treatment for drug abuse each year and youth are especially at risk. Yet ensuring that treatment is both sought and that it is available remains a problem. In the US, over 20 million Americans struggle with substance abuse, but only 12% of them receive any treatment. With two million people languishing in American prisons and  with over a quarter of them dealing with serious drug abuse issues, addressing this medical condition head-on is seen as essential. (5) Treatment, especially for the most serious drugs, such as heroin, often requires that patients be chemical-free for at least one week, before an effective regimen can begin. As such, police and correctional institutions have an important role to play even before those convicted or at-risk populations can get effective medical help. Yet ensuring that inmates receive drug treatment is essential in finally shutting the "revolving door" that characterizes so many jails that deal with rampant recidivism. 

With the connection between serious crime and drug use so apparent, addressing the root causes of crime with effective medical treatment can go a long way in prevention and in keeping the streets of Canadian cities safer. Civil society, public health officials and civil society all have an important role to play. 


(1) Alcohol, Drugs and Crime, National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence.

(2) Trends in Police-Reported Drug Offences in Canada, Statistics Canada.

(3) Homicides in Canada, Alcohol and/or Drug Consumption, Statistics Canada. 

(4) Illegal Drug Use and Crime, Parliament of Canada.

(5) How Health Care Can Reduce Crime, Forbes. 

(6) Inmate Drug Abuse Treatment Slows Prison's Revolving Door, American Psychological Association.  



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