Drugs and Crime

August 28, 2008

Given the perennial public concerns about the drugs problem and the flourishing of undergraduate and masters courses in drugs and crime in many universities, Richard Hammersley's new textbook in Polity's Crime and Society series is a welcome addition to the existing literature on this topic.

As Hammersley makes clear at the outset, he is "a health psychologist ... with an interest in criminology". This explains why the book is "about drugs and crime, with the emphasis on drugs and a focus on crime only insofar as it is supposedly (or really) related to drugs". And this is where its strengths lie. Written in a clear and accessible style, the book challenges many of the "cliches, misrepresentations and stereotypes" in our everyday thinking about the drugs problem, and it critically assesses "the obvious causal link" between drug use and crime. As Hammersley argues, "drugs and crime are linked, but the size, seriousness and causes of this link cannot be taken for granted".

Instead, it is important to be clear about which substances (alcohol, tobacco, heroin, cannabis, steroids, etc) link to crime, and how. Drugs and crime may be linked in three basic ways. For example, some forms of drug use (such as heroin) tend to be linked with acquisitive crime, both in the sense of users obtaining money to buy drugs and because people who are attracted to a drug-related lifestyle tend also to be involved in other crimes. Other forms of drug use (including alcohol and amphetamines) tend to be linked with violent crime and social disorder under some conditions. The third connection is the globalisation of the illicit drugs supply industry. The industry is liable to be violent and criminal in ways other than simply in the supply of drugs, as it "penetrates and corrupts legitimate institutions" probably to a larger extent than is known.

So what can be done to tackle drugs and crime? Besides drug prevention and individualised drug treatment, Hammersley suggests that we should adopt a much broader approach to "reduce social inequalities", "discourage harmful patterns of substance use", "regulate the illicit drugs industry", "increase tolerance and accommodation of drugs and crime", and accept that drugs and crime are what he terms "boundary activities" and reframe these problems in a "relativistic" way. The various attendant policies and practices are then broadly sketched out in the final chapter of the book.

The book injects a much-needed clarity into debates and controversies about the drugs problem and encourages students to think carefully and critically about the precise nature of the link between drugs and crime and what is to be done about it. Hammersley maintains an aptly sceptical stance throughout, deftly appraising conceptualisations about the nature of drugs, users and use from a number of theoretical stances (including maturation theories and gateway theories) as well as empirical studies from both sides of the Atlantic. Overall, this text is a useful and valuable resource for students interested in social policy, criminal justice, health and addiction studies.

Drugs and Crime

By Richard Hammersley. Polity Press. 224pp, £55.00 and £17.99. ISBN 9780745636177 and 6184. Published 23 April 2008

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