Select Committee on Home Affairs Memoranda

Annex A


  Mike Hough, Tim McSweeney and Paul Turnbull, Criminal Policy Research Unit, South Bank University1.

  Details from or [email protected]


  This review suggests several conclusions about the links between drugs and crime in Britain:

    —  Around four million people use illicit drugs each year.

    —  Most illicit drug use is relatively controlled "recreational" use of cannabis and ecstasy.

    —  People who try illicit drugs are more likely than others to commit other forms of law-breaking.

    —  However there is no persuasive evidence of any causal linkage between drug use and property crime for the vast majority of this group.

    —  A very small proportion of users—less than 5 per cent of the total—have chaotic life styles involving dependent use of heroin, crack/cocaine and other drugs.

    —  A small minority of this group—perhaps around 100,000 people—finance their use through crime.

    —  The majority of those who steal to buy drugs were involved in crime before their drug use became a problem for them.

    —  This group of criminally involved problem users commits very large amounts of shoplifting, burglary and other crime to finance drug purchases.

    —  If appropriate drug treatment is given to this group, they reduce their offending levels.


  1.  That there are links between some forms of illicit drug use and crime is obvious. The precise nature of these links is not. Widely differing claims are made about the extent to which crime is "drug-driven". This paper assembles research evidence that can shed light on the relationships. We have focused on key pieces of recent British research, but we have also discussed relevant American work.

  2.  This review is restricted to an examination of the links between drug use and property crime. This is because debate in the UK currently revolves around the impact of drug use on crimes such as burglary, shoplifting, robbery and other theft. We have not examined links with violent crime. This is not to deny that some specific drugs may facilitate violence—and others may inhibit it (Anglin & Speckart, 1988; Dobinson & Ward, 1986; Harrison and Backenheimer, 1998; Jarvis & Parker, 1989). Nor should one ignore the systemic violence associated with some forms of drug distribution (Goldstein, 1985); however, we have not examined it here.


  3.  There is a clear association between illicit drug use and property crime. As will be discussed below, there is a large degree of overlap between those using illicit drugs and those who are involved in crime, with a pool of people who both use drugs and offend. But this link can arise in several ways (see Coid et al, 2000; Best et al, 2000; Walters, 1998 for fuller discussions):

    —  Illicit drug use may lead to other forms of crime, eg to provide money to buy drugs or as a result of the dis-inhibiting effects of some drugs.

    —  Crime may lead to drug use eg providing the money and the contacts to buy drugs or serving as a palliative for coping with the stresses of a chaotic, criminal lifestyle.

    —  There could be a more complex interaction, whereby crime facilitates drug use, and drug use prompts other forms of crime.

    —  There may be an association arising from a shared common cause—but no causal link at all between offending and drug use.

  4.  The fourth possibility deserves as serious consideration as the other three. Surveys of offenders' health show that they are much more likely to smoke nicotine than the general population (eg Singleton et al, 1999). No-one would seriously argue that smoking causes crime, however, or that crime causes smoking. Rather, smoking and crime are likely to share some causal roots without themselves being causally related. The same is likely to be true of some links between illicit drug use and crime. For example, economic deprivation, inconsistent parenting, low educational attainment and limited employment prospects are risk factors not only for chaotic or dependent drug use but also for heavy involvement in crime.

  5.  Each of these explanations will apply to some people. In some cases problem drug use—dependence on drugs such as heroin, crack/cocaine or amphetamines, or heavy binge use of these drugs—does trigger theft as a means of fund raising. Others would never have become drug-dependent if crime had not provided them with the means to buy large amounts of drugs. Some people will both be involved in crime and also use illicit drugs without there being any causal connection whatsoever between the two. There are four sorts of relevant study:

    —  Those examining illicit drug use and offending in the overall population.

    —  Those examining drug use in the offending population.

    —  Those examining offending amongst the "problem drug using" population.

    —  Those examining patterns of drug use and crime amongst criminally involved problem drug users.

  6.  This review gathers together the research evidence under these four headings. For each group of studies we first set out (in italics) what can be safely deduced from the research. We then summarise the key research findings that support these conclusions. At the end of the review we draw together the threads, and discuss possible implications of the available evidence.


  7.  Illicit drug use is widespread in the young adult population. There are around four million regular illicit drug users in Great Britain. The most commonly used illicit drugs are cannabis and ecstasy. Large minorities of the teenage and young adult population also admit to other forms of offending, though only a very small proportion are persistent or serious offenders. Those who use illicit drugs are more likely than others to be involved to some degree in crime, and vice versa. However, in general there is no significant causal link between use of either cannabis or ecstasy and property crime. Only a very small proportion of illicit users report being dependent on drugs.

  8.  According to the British Crime Survey (BCS), 34 per cent of the adult (16-59) population have used illicit drugs at some stage in their life, and 11 per cent report using illicit drugs in the previous year. This represents around 3.5 million people in England and Wales, or four million people taking into account Scotland, who use illicit drugs at least once a year. Use is concentrated amongst the young: 50 per cent of people between the ages of 16 and 29 will have used a prohibited drug at some time in their life and 25 per cent in the last year (Ramsay et al, 2001). Nine out of 10 users say they have used cannabis; one in 10 ecstasy. Use of heroin and crack is rare. However the BCS conducted in 2000 reports an increase in the proportion of 16 to 24 year-olds using heroin (from 3 per cent to 8 per cent) and cocaine (from 3.1 per cent to 4.9 per cent) in the previous year, when compared to findings from the 1998 BCS, though this is not statistically significant.

  9.  The Youth Lifestyle Survey (YLS) makes broadly similar but slightly higher estimates (Flood-Page et al, 2000). The YLS found that about a fifth of young people admitted to some form of offending and that self-reported drug use was the strongest predictor of serious or persistent offending. However, for the majority of young people, there is no persuasive evidence that there is any direct causal linkage between offending and drug use. The association between drug use and offending in the YLS is best understood in terms of a common cause, which leads to two—not totally dissimilar—forms of hedonistic risk-taking.

  10.  Parker and colleagues' longitudinal studies describe evolving patterns of drug use amongst young people in the North West of England (Parker et al, 1998; Measham et al, 2001). Experience of illicit drugs was widespread in their samples and most funded drug use through legitimate means. Respondents made a sharp distinction between acceptable and unacceptable drugs—with heroin and crack in the latter group and use of these drugs was low. There was only a very small minority who were heavily involved in crime, dependent drug use and other forms of delinquency.


  11.  Illicit drug use is very much more common amongst known offenders in Great Britain than amongst the young population as a whole. Dependent or problematic drug use is also more common. Majorities of offenders are regular users of illicit drugs, and a large minority regard themselves as dependent, describing their offending as a direct consequence of this dependence.

  12.  At any one time, there are very roughly 550,000 people in Britain who are persistently involved in crime, of whom slightly more than 100,000 are high-rate persistent offenders (figures from Appendix 3, Home Office, 2001, uplifted to take account of Scotland). The majority of these offenders are known to the police. They are much more heavily involved in drug use, and in problematic drug use, than the general population.

  13.  The largest relevant research study is the NEW-ADAM survey (Bennett, 1998; 2000; 2001), which drug-tests and interviews samples of arrestees. The latest sweep of the survey found that 65 per cent of all arrestees tested (1,435) were positive for some form of illicit drug, with 24 per cent testing positive for opiates and 15 per cent for cocaine. The average weekly expenditure on drugs, for heroin and crack/cocaine users, was £290. The main sources of illegal income during the last 12 months were property crime (theft, burglary, robbery, handling stolen goods and fraud/deception) followed by drug dealing and undeclared earnings while claiming social security benefits. Heroin and crack/cocaine users had an average annual illegal income of around £15,000—compared to an average annual illegal income of £9,000 for all interviewed arrestees. Bennett concludes that these finding suggest drug use and in particular the use of heroin and crack/cocaine is associated with higher levels of both prevalence and incidence of offending.

  14.  This study has some methodological limitations. The samples are small, and given that they are drawn from eight cities per sweep, they are unlikely to be representative of the country as a whole. Participation is voluntary and urine test data are not adjusted to take account of the differences in the half-life of drugs (for example, amphetamines remain testable in urine for two days; opiates, cocaine and benzodiazepines for three days; and cannabis up to a month with chronic users). The results thus need cautious interpretation (see Stimson et al, 1998). Nevertheless they give a good idea of the "order of magnitude" of the relationships between illicit drug use, dependence and offending in this population.

  15.  Consistent results have emerged from surveys of prison inmates indicating that a significant minority of the adult convicted population are dependent drug users prior to imprisonment (Maden et al, 1991; Singleton et al, 1999). Lader and colleagues in their study of psychiatric morbidity among young offenders aged between 16 and 20 years in England and Wales found that six out of 10 had used some drug before entering prison (Lader et al, 2000). Over half were being held for acquisitive crimes, although among women drug offences were more common (one in five being held for these offences). A large proportion reported a measure of dependency—52 per cent of sentenced male offenders, 58 per cent of female offenders and 57 per cent of remanded male prisoners. In particular opiate dependence in the year before coming into prison was reported by 23 per cent of women, 21 per cent of the male remanded and 15 per cent of the male sentenced group.

  16.  Whilst many studies have found extensive drug use amongst persistent offenders, by no means everyone has concluded that there is a simple causal relationship, whereby dependent drug use fuels crime—the so-called "addiction model" of the links between drugs and crime. A Scottish study by Hammersley et al (1989) examined opioid use amongst a group of offenders (in this case, people who had been sent to prison), contrasting them to a group of non-prisoners. They found that involvement in property crime predicted opioid use predicted property crime, and suggested that heavy heroin use could be understood as a function partly of the spending power of persistent offenders and partly of the criminal sub-cultures within which heroin use took place.

  17.  Several researchers have also drawn attention to the ability of many people to use "drugs of dependence" over long periods in controlled ways which do not amount to addiction. Ditton and Hammersley (1994) have argued this in relation to cocaine. Pearson (1987) in relation to heroin (also see Zinberg & Jacobson, 1976; Harding et al,1980).

  18.  These studies argue against the adoption of a simple "addiction model" of the links between drugs and crime, whereby dependence inevitable follows the regular use of drugs, and where crime inevitably follows the onset of dependence. However, there is also the need for some realism in taking at face value the way in which a significant proportion of offenders say that they are drug-dependent, say that they commit crime to feed their habit, and are prepared to seek treatment to address their drug problems.

  19.  A strong association between drug use and known offending has also emerged from US research. However the American criminal justice system has been actively targeting drug users for many years as part of the "war on drugs". It is therefore not surprising that such studies find large numbers of drug users amongst those arrested, dealt with by the courts or imprisoned (MacCoun & Reuter, 1998).


  20.  Problem drug users—those dependent on drugs such as heroin, crack/cocaine or amphetamines, or heavy binge users of these drugs—are a small minority of the total—under 5 per cent of regular drug users. They are likely to be heavily involved in acquisitive crime, though large minorities of those who seek treatment do not report funding their drug use through acquisitive crime.

  21.  Extrapolating from the Home Office Addicts Index in 1996, Edmunds et al (1998; 1999) estimated that problematic drug users in England and Wales number somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000—less than 5 per cent of the four million or so of those who use illicit drugs each year. The Scottish population would add around 10 per cent to this figure. In any one year there may be around 50,000 in contact with treatment services, and several studies have considered the criminal involvement of those in treatment.

  22.  The National Treatment Outcome Research Study (NTORS) was a longitudinal study of 1,100 opiate dependent drug users who had sought treatment. It found high levels of criminal behaviour among the sample (Gossop et al, 1998). 61 per cent of the sample reported committing crimes other than drug possession in the three months before they started treatment; in aggregate they admitted to 71,000 crimes in this period. The most commonly reported offence was shoplifting.

  23.  A smaller study of 221 methadone reduction and maintenance clients found over four-fifths had been arrested from some criminal offence in the past (Coid et al., 2000). However, offending prior to treatment had not always been undertaken solely to fund drug taking. Despite this, two-thirds believed there was a strong link between their current offending and their drug habit and half claimed that their current offending served solely to fund their drug habit. Best et al (2001) examined 100 people entering drug treatment in London. Consistent with NTORS and Coid et al, they found slightly more than half of the sample reported funding drug use through acquisitive crime.

  24.  There is an extensive research literature in US which similarly suggest that may problematic users are involved in criminal activity (Nurco et al, 1995; Anglin & Perrochet, 1998; Lurigio, 2000; NIJ, 2000).


  25.  Problem users who have recently come to police attention are usually at the more chaotic end of the spectrum of problem drug users. They tend to be poly-drug users, with heroin and crack prominent in their drug repertoires. They are likely to have a long criminal career, which often pre-dates their career as problem drug user. They spend a great deal of money on drugs (often several hundred pounds a week). They are likely to have been arrested for shoplifting, burglary of other acquisitive offences, although drug dealing is also a frequent fund-raising strategy. Treatment has been shown to yield large falls in drug use, and consequent reductions in offending.

  26.  There is now quite a significant body of research examining patterns of crime and drug use amongst problem users who are identified as such as they pass through the criminal process. Much of this work has involved evaluations of treatment or referral programmes targeting this group. The studies show that these problem drug users commit large amounts of acquisitive crime. For example, drug-using offenders on probation in London were found to be spending an average of £362 per week on drugs prior to arrest primarily raised by committing acquisitive crime, notably shoplifting. In the month before arrest, over half (51 per cent) of these probationers were using both heroin and crack (Hearnden & Harocopos, 2000). The evaluation of a range of "arrest referral schemes" designed to refer offenders to treatment also found similar levels of expenditure on drugs funded through property crimes such as burglary. Again most reported poly-drug use with 97 per cent using either opiates or stimulants or both (Edmunds et al, 1999). Turnbull and colleagues described the drug use and offending behaviour of those offenders given Drug Treatment and Testing Orders. Three-fifths of those given the 210 pilot orders had never received any form of help or treatment for their drug use (Turnbull et al, 2000). Of 132 drug-using offenders interviewed most (120 or 91 per cent) had been using opiates on a daily basis before arrest. They reported committing several types of property crime on a daily basis in order to fund an average expenditure of £400 per week on drugs. Almost half received their order following a conviction for shoplifting.

  27.  An important finding to emerge from both British and North American studies is that the criminal careers of this group usually pre-dated the onset of problematic or dependent drug use. Edmunds et al (1999), for example, examining a sample drawn from arrest referral clients and probationers found that the average age at which illicit drugs were first used was 15 years. The average at first conviction (for any offence) was 17 years. The average age at which respondents recognised their drug use as problematic was 23 years—six year later.

  28.  A review of US research by Deitch et al (2000) concluded that roughly two-thirds of drug-using offenders report involvement in crime before the onset of drug use. This simple fact has led some to argue that drug use can not be regarded as a cause; obviously it cannot be the sole cause, but as Harrison and Backenheimer (1998) argue, "Addiction to illicit drugs appears to be an amplifier or catalyst which aggravates deviant tendencies". Whilst dependent drug use may not have triggered the criminal careers of this group, it provides a mechanism by which they are locked into offending, and thus fail to mature out of crime in the way that characterises the majority of young offenders.

  29.  Both British and US studies point to a preferred hierarchy of fund-raising strategies, with drug dealing and shoplifting at or near the top of the list while burglary and robbery offences also feature prominently.

  30.  There are many studies which suggest that treating the drug problems of this criminally involved population has benefit. Both British and US research suggests that drug treatment can work to reduce offending as well as drug use (Gossop et al, 1998;) Coid et al, 2000; Edmunds et al, 1998, 1999; Hearnden & Harocopos, 1999; Turnbull et al, 2000; also see Belenko, 1998 and Lurigio, 2000, for American reviews). Whilst much of the research can be criticised on methodological grounds, (most have relied on urine test data for the period covering the treatment programme, few collected reliable outcome measures relating to re-offending, and fewer still have run for periods of time stretching beyond engagement with the programme, comparing treatment groups with comparison samples) cumulatively it offers quite good evidence that appropriate drug services can help reduce drug use and related crime. The studies also have obvious implications about the links between dependent drug use and persistent offending; if reduced dependence results in reduced offending, this provides strong grounds for the existence of a causal link.


  31.  This review suggests several conclusions about the links between drugs and crime in Britain:

    —  Around four million people use illicit drugs each year.

    —  Most illicit drug use is relatively controlled "recreational" use of cannabis and ecstasy.

    —  People who try illicit drugs are more likely than others to commit other forms of law-breaking.

    —  However there is no persuasive evidence of any causal linkage between drug use and property crime for the vast majority of this group.

    —  A very small proportion of users—less than 5 per cent of the total—have chaotic life styles involving dependent use of heroin, crack/cocaine and other drugs.

    —  A small minority of this group—perhaps around 100,000 people—finance their use through crime.

    —  The majority of those who steal to buy drugs were involved in crime before their drug use became a problem for them.

    —  This group of criminally involved problem users commits very large amounts of shoplifting, burglary and other crime to finance drug purchases.

    —  If appropriate drug treatment is given to this group, they reduce their offending levels.

  32.  There are different explanations for the association between illicit drug use and crime for different groups of drug user. In considering the links it is essential to be specific about these different groups.

  33.  The literature suggest that "lifestyle" and "sub-cultural" factors are important in explaining why those who try illicit drugs are also more likely than others to get involved in other forms of law-breaking. The search for novelty and excitement, and enjoyment of the rewards of risk-taking are defining aspects of youth culture. It is hardly a surprise that large minorities of the population engage in the—relatively controlled—risks of both recreational drug use and minor crime at some stage of their adolescence and young adulthood.

  34.  For those whose offending—and drug use—is more persistent and less controlled, other explanatory factors also need to be called into play. In the first place, chaotic drug users and persistent offenders—in contrast to controlled drug users and occasional petty offenders—have limited social and economic resources, and limited exposure to legitimate "life opportunities" (see eg Harrison 1992; MacGregor, 2000). The majority are from deprived backgrounds, with inconsistent parenting, poor access to housing and health care, low educational attainment and limited employment prospects. Controlled drug use has no obvious association with social exclusion; how could it, given the scale of participation? Chaotic or dependent use, by contrast, shares that constellation of risk factors that also predict heavy involvement in crime—and exposure to many forms of social exclusion.

  35.  If these risk factor predispose people both to uncontrolled drug use and to involvement in persistent offending, Walters (1998) and De Li Periu and MacKenzie (2000) have discussed how reciprocal causal relationships can begin to emerge, whereby criminal involvement both facilitates and maintains drug use, and drug use maintains involvement in crime. Whilst some researchers, such as Hammersley and colleagues (1989), have argued for sub-cultural explanations of the close linkage, the accounts of the offenders themselves are more consistent with a pathological perspective, where dependence provides the motive for acquisitive offending.

  36.  A "war on drugs" is one of the most persistent of political metaphors. In mobilising their troops, drug warriors point to drug-related crime as one of the worse consequences of drug use. This review presents research evidence which calls into question the simple "addiction model" of the relationship between drugs and crime whereby illicit drug use lead inexorably to dependence and thence to crime. The relationships are actually more complex. Most drug users are—and remain—in control of their use; many such users are also involved in crime, but drugs are not to blame for this. There is a small minority of drug users who are dependent in their use and chaotic in their lifestyles; there is a strong probability that these will finance their drug use through property crime.

  37.  It makes sense to think of chaotic or dependent drug use and persistent offending sharing causal roots; but it is also important to understand how, once established, the two behaviours can be mutually sustaining. Drug dependence tends to amplify the offending rates of people whose circumstances may predispose them to becoming persistent offenders. There are important policy implications here. It makes excellent sense to provide treatment services for drug-dependent offenders; if successful, it should substantially reduce levels of crime. However, to maintain the lifestyle changes, which treatment may enable, it will also be necessary to address the factors, which drew this group into persistent offending in the first place.

September 2001


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