DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE: The link between crime and drug dependency

May 28, 2015 Matt Noffs Comments

Even when anti-prohibitionists discuss drug law reform, they're always careful to voice their philosophical opposition to drug use.

No-one wants to be seen as a druggie or crucified as a degenerate.

But is the view that all drug users are somehow scum to be imprisoned rational?

Is it true that anyone not staunchly in favour of the total prohibition of a few arbitrarily chosen substances is a danger to society?

In order for that to be true, we would have to find that all (or at least the vast majority of) drug users fit this characterisation of a malignant member of society.

And even though I, just the same as you, have grown up being bombarded with these images and concepts of drug use being a path to compete dereliction, when we look at the statistics it seems impossible that this is really the truth.

Let's take heroin as an example.

The estimated total market size of heroin in Australia is 2 billion dollars a year. 1 The number of people that have admitted to using heroin, along with people convicted of possession or crimes where heroin is implicated as a catalyst, is about 0.1% of the Australian Population equal to 115,000 individuals. 2 So this would mean that each heroin user spends an average of $47 per day on heroin. 

The above figures rely on self-reporting and estimates of market size based on seizures. Another study “reported that the median expenditure on drugs by heroin users was $1500 per week and the median earnings from burglary by heroin users was $3000 per week.” 3

If all 115,000 of the admitted Heroin users were reliant on burglary, we could calculate that 115,000 people were making $156,000 a year each and spending $78,000 on heroin. That would mean a market size of $8.9 Billion. However our known market size is only $2 Billion,

Do we really believe that every person using those drugs is reliant on burglary?

Or do we conclude that in fact, there are far more people using drugs and paying for it with conventional means. Perhaps from the salary at their 9-5 jobs.

Perhaps it is more likely that, as with alcohol, only the visible minority suffer from a drug dependency. Whilst the quiet majority are partaking of small amounts, on rare occasions or have tried once or twice and then abstained ever since. The difference between the ninth and the top percentile of alcohol consumption is a whopping 10 standards drinks per day.4Is it such a stretch to believe the same applies to illicit substances?


When we think of drug use, it goes hand in hand with dependency and crime. In fact, there is even a UN Office of Drugs and Crime, the two are so inextricably linked. In 2009-10 Australia alone spent $1.7 Billion on policing illicit substances. 5

When we break that down further, the majority of spending is on fighting the supply of illicit drugs, rather than criminal behaviour caused by people using illicit drugs. 87% of this funding was spent on law enforcement and treatment, whilst only 10% was spent on preventing drug dependency, and a mere 3% on harm reduction.6 While $1.7 Billion per year is spent directly on drug crimes, organised crime groups (many of whom deal in drugs and drug smuggling) costs Australia further $15 billion. 7 

So in a way, a lot of the crime associated with the drug trade exists only because the drug trade is illegal. If we remove the assumption that there is something inherently wrong with selling drugs, other than that it breaks laws which have been arbitrarily created, the actual crime that results from drug use (such as driving under the influence, violence, theft etc.) is minimal.

If we then assume that at least some of that crimes (such as theft and street prostitution) are caused by the high cost of drugs, which is in turn caused by the fact that it is illegal to supply them, we wind up with a set of crime statistics that suggest people affected by drugs are not more likely to commit crimes than anyone else. Indeed the social environment is a much larger contributor to people's actions when under the influence. The 1991 Criminal Victimization Survey suggests that less than 5% of victims of assault believed their attacker to be under the influence of illicit drugs 8 Yet more than 10% of the prisoners in Australia are serving time for illicit drug offenses.9  

The statement that drug use leads to crime is therefore quite self referential. If you outlaw something, of course it will be illegal. If that behaviour is widespread, you will end up with a lot of criminals.

As part of the ‘bikie laws’ passed in 2013 you can be considered a criminal for inviting your cousin and a couple of his friends around for a barbeque, if they were members of the same motorcycle group.10 At the same time in America it became illegal to unlock your mobile phone so it could accept a sim card from any carrier.11 In 2014, when Texas tightened the laws about what constitutes valid identification for casting a vote, many people found themselves inadvertently running foul of the law when they couldn’t produce the necessary documents.12

In fact, regular ‘law-abiding citizens’ are breaking the law almost daily, by singing Happy Birthday in public (copyright law) playing card games for money anywhere other than a licenced venue.


We can safely assume that anyone who fits the definition of "problem drug user" must necessarily either run afoul of the law, or seek treatment for their condition.

By definition, if neither of those two things happen, you couldn't really say there was a problem.

If people use drugs and don't commit crimes or develop a problematic dependency, then they are exempt from our world view of malignant druggies. They might be unhealthy, or waste their money, but those issues aren’t limited to drug use.

In order to examine what proportion of drug use results in problematic dependency, then what we have to do is:

  1. Find out the size of the total illicit drug market

  2. Find out, on average, how much of each drug someone is likely to use. This gives us a rough idea of the order of magnitude of the population that uses drugs based on market size

  3. Find out how many people develop problematic dependencies

This will give us a reasonably accurate picture, based on total market size, of what percentage of people who use various types of drugs, wind up developing a problematic dependency.

In 2013 it was estimated that Australia’s drug trade was worth $17 Billion, while the researcher only recorded 90,000 drug convictions, he estimated enough substances were passing through Australia for 2.68 billion hits.13 This means that for every 30,000 uses of an illicit substance, there is only one person who runs afoul of the law.

Statistics for developing drug dependencies requiring intervention range from a mere 1% of first-time users of inhalants and tranquilisers, up to 13% of first time heroin users.14 While those percentages increase over time, it still shows a large proportion of people who use drugs recreationally will not develop a dependency. The 2010 Drugs in Australia report showed that only 8% of Australians will develop a drug dependency that requires intervention in their lifetimes. 15


When we examine facts like these,  it seems bizarre that we characterise the very large total population of drug users entirely based on the behaviour of a vanishingly small minority of people that develop problematic drug dependencies.

What's more, it seems bizarre that we persecute these people with such ferocity and look down upon them with such disdain.

Given that so many people use drugs without incident, it seems unfair to vilify those unlucky enough to develop problems of dependency.

In fact, it could be said that a person's vulnerability, rather than their drug use, is the biggest determining factor in whether or not they will commit crimes or develop a drug dependency.

Individuals can become dependant when their community and environment do not provide adequate opportunities for socialisation, development and self-expression. In the 1950’s and 60’s multiple experiments were conducted on rats in isolated cages. They were given the ability to self-administer various illicit substances and consistently drugged themselves into death, losing all interest in eating, drinking, and basic self-care behaviours.

Professor Bruce Alexander redesigned the experiments to create Rat Park. A complex, exciting home was built for the rats, where they could interact freely with each other, dig, build nests, and act out their natural behaviours. While they still occasionally partook of the drugs available, the rats preferred to live rich, fulfilling lives interacting and playing together. Even when the rats were physically dependent on opiates, those living in Rat Park chose to suffer withdrawals, rather than partaking of the drugs on offer.16

The examples of the environment we live in priming us for addiction can be found in more than just rats. When the American army returned home after the Vietnam, 1 in 5 were addicted to heroin. Just a few years later only 1 in 100 were still dependent on the drug, a 95% reduction. Some of the best rehab clinics are happy with a 6% success rate.17

It is inarguable the wartime is not an ideal situation for any human being, and negative sentiment towards Vietnam Veterans is well documented in both myth and fact.18 However once returned to a ‘normal’ existence veterans showed a phenomenal recovery rate from drug dependency, showing that vulnerability and social isolation are more likely to cause dependency than the ‘addictive’ nature of the substances.

Mental illnesses, particularly Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, have strong links to drug dependency. Between 60% to 80% of Vietnam Veterans who sought treatment for PTSD were later diagnosed with drug dependancy.19 Inversely, 1 in 3 veterans who seek help for drug dependency are diagnosed with PTSD.20

The act of using illicit substances does not always lead to dependency, but when paired with a traumatic event, individuals may self-medicate due to the stigma of admitting that they suffer a mental illness.21 Dual Diagnosis estimates that co-occurring mental health conditions and substance dependence affect nearly 8.9 million people each year. 22

What we have is therefore a vast quantity of drugs being consumed by people from all walks of life, and a small subset of people being ferociously persecuted and prosecuted because they develop problems of dependency and/or commit crime in order to support their habit.

This is almost like persecuting school children with behavioural problems or learning disabilities.


The sheer volume of illicit drugs consumed on a daily basis without incident suggests that the the characterisation of drug users as malignant burdens on society is wildly inaccurate.

In fact, drug use, it would seem, is basically a normal part of human existence.

So why is it that, in the face of such evidence, people who campaign against drug prohibition are always so cautious to state their philosophical objection to drug use?

It's like there are two completely different but parallel worlds: one where everyone basically knows that taking illicit drugs is commonplace, and one where we all have to distance ourselves from the notion that drug use might be normal for fear of being classified as degenerates.

Matt Noffs


1. Estimating the size and value of Australia’s market for illegal drugs and its potential for taxation under a regulated market By Dr. John Jiggens

2. Illicit use of drugs (NDSHS 2013 key findings) By Australian Institute of Health and Welfare via

3. DRUG MISUSES AND ITS IMPACT ON LAW ENFORCEMENT By Peter Edwards, Australian Bureau of Criminal Investigation, ACT

4. Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you. By Christopher Ingraham via The Washington Post

5 and 6. 24. Government drug policy expenditure in Australia - 2009/10 By authors Author: Alison Ritter, Ross McLeod, Marian Shanahan via NDARC

7. Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs via Australian Crime Commission

8. ALCOHOL, DRUGS, AND VIOLENCE By authors Robert Nash Parker and Kathleen Auerhahn

9. 4517.0 - Prisoners in Australia, 2014 via Australian Bureau of Statistics website

10. Queensland's anti-bikie laws: We're all criminals now By Michael Cope via Independent Australia

11. The Most Ridiculous Law of 2013 (So Far): It Is Now a Crime to Unlock Your Smartphone By DEREK KHANNA via The Atlantic

12. How is Texas voter ID law affecting poor, minorities? Center tracks impact (+video) By Henry Gass via The Christian Science Monitor

13. Estimating the size and value of Australia’s market for illegal drugs and its potential for taxation under a regulated market By Dr John Jiggens via

14. Addiction: Small Percentage of Drug Users Dependent One Year After First Use By psmith via

15. Drug Addiction in Australia via Drug & Alcohol Rehab Asia website

16. Rat Park By Stuart McMillen

17. Capitalism Makes us Crazy: Dr Gabor Maté on Illness & Addiction By Kwan via National Radio Project

18. Aftermath By Australia and the Vietnam War via

19. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction via

20. PTSD and Substance Abuse in Veterans By U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs via

21. Self-Medicating for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder By Elements Behavioral Health via

22. Dual Diagnosis website





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