A clear link exists between persistent criminal behaviour by young offenders and high levels of drug use, according to Mike Collison of Keele University's department of criminology.
But it is not the case that young people embark on crime to feed their drug habits as politicians and the public often believe, he says.
Dr Collison has conducted detailed life-history interviews with a random sample of 80 prison inmates aged between 17 and 21. Some 81 per cent had committed their first crime by the age of 15.
The survey, backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, showed that 74 per cent of drug users in the survey began crime before or at the same time as starting to take drugs.
Fourteen was the average age of starting drugs with most beginning between 12 and 16 years of age.
Dr Collison says that drugs and crime feed off each other and the Government should recognise this.
"The thrust of drug strategies in recent years has been that if we do something about drugs then we would automatically be tackling crime. It is nowhere near so simple. I would argue that if we did something about crime then we would be in a much better position to address the problem of drug use among young people," he says.
The drift into crimes such as shoplifting results from young people entering a culture where drugs are a way of life. "It is a very expensive lifestyle they are introduced to. The best trainers, sweat shirts and Pounds 100 on a rave night is typical."
According to the report, Crime, Drug and Treatment Careers, most of the drug-using sample had tried a range of drugs. Classified by main drug, 30 per cent used cannabis on a regular basis, 14 per cent one of the "dance drugs" regularly and 15 per cent heroin. Many of the heroin users were also users of drugs such as cocaine and amphetamine.
The unanimous view among drug users in the sample was that the present education and treatment policies and agencies were irrelevant to them.
Dr Collison says: "A fundamental rethink of these policies is needed. The vast majority in the drug using group did not want to stop and saw their drug use and crime as part of everyday life. In the words of young offenders themselves, they 'can find better things to do with their time'."