Psychoactive Substances and Their Role in Criminal Behavior

The interplay between psychoactive substances and crime is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that has puzzled legal and medical professionals alike. While the connections between drug use (including alcohol) and criminal activity are varied and influenced by individual life paths, a comprehensive understanding necessitates examining four core elements: 1) the intoxication and the offender’s expectations of the psychopharmacological effects of the consumed drugs; 2) their level of dependence on one or several psychoactive products and the costs attributable to this dependence; 3) their lifestyle; and 4) the repression and distribution system of illicit drugs.

The Offender’s Intoxication and Drug Effects Expectations

The use of psychoactive substances disrupts a user’s functioning by affecting their perceptions, mood, consciousness, and resulting behaviors. Based on their primary effects, both licit and illicit drugs are generally categorized into three broad types: depressants, stimulants, and disruptors.

Depressants like alcohol, opioids, volatile substances, anxiolytics, sedatives, and hypnotics, particularly alcohol, are known for their disinhibiting effects. The natural barriers internalized during childhood dissolve under alcohol’s influence, unleashing certain impulses, including violent tendencies in some individuals. During intoxication periods, the usual response repertoire to stress narrows, favoring primal, physical responses over intellectual ones. For those developing a dependence, withdrawal from a depressant is a distressing experience marked by irritability, restlessness, decreased attention and concentration, confusion, and sometimes even hypersensitivity to light, sound, and pain, as well as hallucinations. In some instances, these withdrawal symptoms may be linked to violent behavior by the person experiencing them.

Stimulants of the central nervous system (cocaine, amphetamines, etc.) constitute the second most consumed category of psychoactive substances in North America. These drugs typically induce a feverish euphoria. However, the initially sought-after effects turn adverse as heightened sensitivity evolves into hyper-vigilance and extreme reactivity to environmental stimuli, leading to annoyance, impatience, and irritability. For users engaging in abrupt consumption methods (injection, “freebase” or crack cocaine), stimulants trigger paranoid thoughts, prompting either flight or attack reactions. However, stimulants, especially cocaine, often imbue users with a sense of omnipotence, favoring confrontational behaviors. Violence may also result from the irritability following the “crash” at the end of the intoxication period.

Disruptors (cannabis, LSD, PCP, magic mushrooms, etc.) make up a third category. These substances induce cognitive and behavioral distortions; in severe cases, they lead to hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinogens are often used to achieve transcendental-like states. Rarely associated with crime or violence, their use can trigger latent psychopathology or exacerbate severe mental issues in individuals, thus promoting violent behavior.

Yet, the effects of substances that may lead to criminal behavior are largely mediated through the consumer’s expectations and attitudes. These expectations are shaped by observations gathered over time and personal experiences. Thus, a user learns that one substance calms them while another helps them handle challenging situations. Then, they may use certain drugs instrumentally, based on personal expectations. For instance, offenders might use drugs to facilitate a pre-planned criminal operation. However, attributing an individual’s violence to intoxication or expectations demands caution, as a person prone to aggression is more likely to exhibit violent behavior, whether intoxicated or not.

Level of Dependence and Associated Costs

Illicit psychoactive substances tend to be inexpensive. A casual cannabis user might not spend significantly more on their product than an alcohol consumer. A recreational cocaine user limiting their intake to occasional quarter-gram purchases won’t overly strain their budget. Furthermore, the price of these substances has remained relatively stable over the past two decades. An occasional drug user can easily accommodate this expense in their monthly budget.

The scenario drastically changes for individuals who have developed an addiction. For them, drugs become prohibitively expensive. Therefore, the criminal involvement of some consumers, unable to manage their daily intake, is often attributed to the need for money driven by expensive drug dependencies.

Typically, these individuals engage in lucrative crimes within their reach. What better way for habitual users to engage in a small-scale drug network? Many of them practice trafficking on a small scale among friends or acquaintances, sometimes extending their activities to strangers. Others resort to theft or a more diversified criminality, but a constant in the criminal behavior of these individuals is the quest for money to satisfy an uncontrollable consumption.

However, not all criminality among addicts can be solely attributed to their addiction, as many addicts were involved in criminal activities even before the first signs of addiction appeared.

Moreover, besides possessing drugs for personal use, many addicted individuals never exhibit criminal behavior. While some of them have sufficient income to sustain their consumption, others find ways to reduce it, use less expensive substitutes, or stop altogether as they recover.

How Drugs Affect Lifestyle

Not all psychoactive substance users abuse to the point of intoxication or dependence, just as not all individuals intoxicated or dependent on a drug resort to crime. The two drug-crime linkages presented above, i.e., crimes committed in a state of intoxication and with the goal of obtaining a drug to satisfy dependence, though providing an adequate picture of the addicts’ situation, are insufficient to fully grasp their reality.

Substance use is a complex behavior based on a multitude of factors and linked to a lifestyle. However, the consumed substance is not the pivotal element. Indeed, the lifestyle of habitual users is conditioned by the drug consumed but also by the complex antagonisms derived from their social environments, regardless of the drug. In many circles, drugs and their users are symbolically associated with numerous negative traits (immorality, debauchery, degradation, etc.), placing users on society’s margins. In this context of marginality and deviance, the lifestyle adopted by many habitual psychoactive substance users opens up to an alternative living system, an orientation towards the forbidden, valorizing certain behaviors, providing a context for identification, while allowing access to desired pleasures and sensations. This creates a complex set of mutually influencing relationships. This lifestyle somewhat favors an enhanced risk-taking, even sometimes violent, behavior during intoxication and encourages outright criminal behaviors during dependency periods.

Thus, drugs become an opportunity, a pretext, a motive, a condition, and a consequence of criminality within a being and behaving mode that is acquired and nuanced throughout the user’s life.

The Illicit Drug Distribution and Supply System

To combat the illicit distribution of certain drugs and their supply, the vast majority of countries have signed the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988). These conventions aim to criminalize the cultivation, production, trafficking, distribution, possession, or consumption of specific drugs, except for those used regularly for medical or research purposes, prescribed medications, alcohol, tobacco, and coffee. While not offering a permanent solution to the circulation and consumption of illicit substances, these conventions have, conversely, created new categories of criminals: users and their suppliers, who, in several countries, make up a significant portion of cases occupying police work.

These conventions have, in a way, “forced” the creation of an illicit distribution and supply system for drugs. This system, in turn, encourages crime in two main ways. Firstly, the illicit nature of the drug trade environment enables the consumer to come into contact with individuals deeply involved in various criminal activities, thus possibly bringing them closer to experienced criminals. Secondly, this environment causes numerous territorial conflicts among rival traffickers, where intimidation and violence are omnipresent.

Drug-related criminality is primarily attributed to the properties of the substances consumed: their intoxicating properties and the development of dependence for some habitual users. However, not all consumers who experiment with drugs, even when intoxicated or dependent, necessarily commit crimes. The adopted lifestyle is a powerful mediator that promotes/prevents the commission of crimes. Additionally, there are two types of crimes that have nothing to do with the properties of drugs. They are the crimes defined by drug laws and those encouraged by the illicit environments in which any illegal product is traded.

In summary, the relationship between psychoactive substances and crime is not straightforward but rather influenced by a complex web of factors including the effects of intoxication, levels of dependence, individual lifestyles, and the structures of the illicit drug trade. Understanding this dynamic is crucial for developing effective legal, social, and health policies aimed at reducing drug-related harm and criminality. As society continues to grapple with the challenges posed by psychoactive substances, a multi-faceted approach that addresses the root causes and broader societal implications of drug use and distribution is essential for fostering safer communities and helping individuals affected by substance abuse.