Violence and Drug and Alcohol Use

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Violence and Drug and Alcohol Use

Violence connected to drug and alcohol use has had a significant impact on society. Substance abuse can cause people to act violently as a direct result of drugs' effects on the brain. Drugs can also lead to violence in indirect ways. For example, drug users are more likely to commit crimes, some of which may be violent, in order to obtain drugs or the money to buy drugs. Evidence suggests that the sale and distribution of illegal drugs causes violence in both sellers and buyers.

Researching Drugs and Behavior

The link between drugs and aggression and violent behavior depends on the type of drug and the person who uses the drug. Some drugs directly activate brain mechanisms that control aggression, mostly in individuals who have already shown aggression in the past. Research using animals has allowed scientists to study the direct effects of drugs on aggression and violent behavior.

One type of animal research is known as the experimental-psychological approach. In this type of experiment, scientists set up and control the environment of research animals. In the 1960s researchers developed models of aggression by observing animals who were housed in crowded conditions over long periods of time, exposed to painful electrical shocks, denied scheduled rewards, or restricted in their food intake. By comparing animals' behavior in these conditions to their behavior in normal living conditions, scientists gain insight into the causes of violence and aggression.

With humans, researchers have created similar conditions by setting up and controlling the environment in laboratory settings. The aim of such research is to cause aggressive behavior similar to the behaviors people show in the world outside of the laboratory. The ethical dilemma of such research is to reduce risk to the research subjects while at the same time trying to realistically capture the essential elements of violent behavior and its causes.

In another type of research, scientists study the brain directly in order to understand how changes in this organ may lead to aggression. After studying the brain tissue of violent patients, researchers developed techniques to destroy specific areas of the brain in laboratory animals. This stimulated the animals to become enraged and bite. Obviously this type of research is very limited in its scope and difficult to translate to humans.

Nonetheless, research on aggression has helped scientists understand the link between drugs and alcohol and violence. Statistics link alcohol to aggressive and violent behavior in humans on a very large scale that is consistent over the years and encompasses many types of violent acts. Experimental studies have shown that after drinking alcohol, individuals are prone to aggressive and competitive behavior. While it may be true that alcohol consumption is often associated with socially acceptable behavior, individuals react to it differently depending on their genes, their life experiences, and their environment. Alcohol impairs judgment and disrupts patterns of social interaction, and these effects can lead to violence. In the brain, research has shown that alcohol affects the two neurotransmitters that play a role in aggressive behavior.

Drinking and Family Violence

Research shows that alcohol is a contributing factor to violence in American households. Alcohol is most often a factor in husband-against-wife violence. The husband has been drinking in approximately one-quarter to one-half of cases of wife beating. The most common pattern is that either the husband or both the husband and the wife drink, but not usually the wife alone. Studies show that

husbands or partners with alcohol problems are more likely to commit violence against their wives or partners.

According to a 2000 study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, two-thirds of victims who suffered violence by a current or former spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend reported that alcohol had been a factor. Among spouse victims, three out of four incidents involved someone who had been drinking. By contrast, only 31 percent of the crimes committed by strangers were thought to be related to alcohol.

Research also shows that violence against women may lead to their own use of alcohol and drugs. Women may use drinking as a way to deal with physical and emotional pain and fear that result from living in a violent relationship. Women in alcohol treatment programs had higher rates of father-to-daughter violence than women in a comparison group. These findings show that the relationship of alcohol and family violence must be carefully interpreted. While alcohol may not necessarily cause violence in family relationships, its use may be a response to violent victimization.

Ages of children (years) Estimated number of children
Under 2678,923
2 years to 5 years1,551,952
6 years to 9 years1,616,156
10 years to 13 years1,225,437
14 years to 17 years1,115,056
Total 6,187,524
source: Office of Applied Studies, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 1996. <>.

How Different Drugs Affect Behavior

Drug users who inject amphetamine may develop paranoid psychosis , a state in which they commit violent acts. Individuals who have a predisposition to violence are more likely to suffer from this effect. While low amphetamine doses can increase certain negative social behaviors, higher doses often lead to severe social withdrawal.

Although there are few studies on cocaine's effect on aggression and violence, evidence shows aggressive individuals may tend to engage in violent acts after using the drug. However, as discussed below, with crack cocaine the real problem is the violence associated with the supplying, dealing, and buying of the drug. Phencyclidine (PCP), another drug that does not directly cause violence, may cause violent behavior in an individual with a violent history.

Marijuana and hashish, whose active ingredient is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), tend to decrease aggressive and violent behavior. Because marijuana and related drugs are easily available at a relatively low cost, there is less violence associated with dealing and buying it than is the case with cocaine. LSD, popular in the 1960s but less so today, has rarely been associated with violent behavior.

Ecstasy (MDMA), is a drug that has both hallucinogenic and stimulant effects. It is associated with reduced aggression and an increase in empathy among users while they are taking it. However, several days after using the drug, individuals may suffer feelings of


Arrested and booked for:

Other Assault

Larceny or Theft

Aggravated Assault 0.3%






Drunk more than 51 days in the past year



0 1 2 3 4 5


SOURCE: U.S. Health and Human Services Department -- National Household Survey on Drug Abuse -- Main Findings 1997. <>.

depression, hostility, and social fears. These symptoms are more likely to appear in long-term heavy users. Ecstasy can also bring about a reduced concern for personal safety, leading to reckless behavior that may have a violent outcome. Ecstasy affects the neurotransmitter serotonin by destroying the neurons that produce it. Evidence suggests that low levels of serotonin play a role in violent and aggressive criminal behavior. Long-term use of ecstasy could therefore contribute to an increased tendency for violent behavior.

Drug Addiction, Crime, and Violence

Violence connected with drug use is largely connected to getting money to maintain the drug habit, and to establishing and conducting the business of drug dealing. Competition for drug markets and customers, and disputes among individuals involved in selling drugs, play a role in drug-related violence. In addition, locales where drugs are sold on the streets tend to be disadvantaged economically and socially. As a result, legal and social controls against violence are not as effective as in more affluent areas.

Although the number of drug-related homicides has been declining in recent years, drugs are still one of the main factors leading to homicides. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Crime in the United States: Uniform Crime Reports, in 1998 murders related to narcotics were the fourth-most documented circumstance out of twenty-four possible categories. Over half of adult males arrested in thirty-four American cities in 1999 tested positive for drug use, according to the Department of Justice's report, Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring (ADAM) Program: 1999 Annual Report on Drug Use Among Adult and Juvenile Arrestees. In more than half of the cities reporting data, 65 percent or more of the arrestees had recently used marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates (such as heroin), and/or PCP, according to preliminary findings of the 2000 ADAM report. Use of at least one of these drugs ranged from 51 percent in Des Moines to 79 percent in New York City.

The link between crime and drugs goes beyond those who are under the influence at the time of the arrest. In 1998 an estimated 61,000 convicted jail inmates said they had committed their offense to get money for drugs, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More than 11 percent of inmates who committed a crime to get money for drugs were convicted of a violent offense in 1999.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, approximately 7.4 million individuals age 12 or older in 1999 were victims of violent crimes. Victims were asked if they could tell whether the offender had been drinking or using drugs. About 28 percent of the victims of violence reported that the offender was using drugs and/or alcohol. Based on this information, approximately 1.2 million violent crimes occurred in which the victims were sure that the offender had been drinking, and for about one in four of these, victims believed the offender was also using drugs.

Among young people, studies show that violence has increased since the mid-1980s. According to the 1999 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, more than 5 million of the estimated 23 million youths aged 12 to 17 reported participating in a violent act, such as fighting at school or work. Youths who participated in violent behaviors were more likely to have used alcohol and illicit drugs than those who did not participate in violent behaviors. For example, 26 percent of youths who had participated in a serious fight at school or work reported past month use of alcohol, and 18 percent reported drug use.

Drug Trafficking and Violence

For many years, the trafficking of drugs in the United States was controlled by traditional organized crime groups operating inside and outside the country. From the 1950s to the 1970s, La Cosa Nostra, better known as the Mafia, controlled an estimated 95 percent of all heroin entering New York City, as well as most of the heroin distributed throughout the United States. This monopoly was effectively ended in 1972 by French and U.S. drug agents. Today, the traffic in illegal drugs is controlled by international organized crime syndicates (organizations) from Colombia, Mexico, and other countries.

These groups often model their operations after international terrorist groups. They maintain tight control of their workers through compartmentalized structures that separate production, shipment, distribution, money laundering , communications, security, and recruitment, so that workers are unaware of their colleagues' activities. Like terrorists, they make use of technologically advanced airplanes, boats, radar, communications, and weapons to distribute and protect their investment. They also use vast counterintelligence networks to keep one step ahead of competitors and law-enforcement officials. Drug traffickers and terrorists often use similar methods to achieve their goals. Many drug trafficking organizations engage in acts that could be considered terrorist in nature, such as killing innocent people in public, large-scale bombings, kidnapping, and torture.

In addition, drugs form an important part of the financial infrastructure of terrorist groups. The sale of drugs is the primary source of income for many of the more powerful terrorist organizations. Twelve of the twenty-eight terrorist organizations identified by the U.S. Department of State traffic in drugs. For example, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which protected Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, used money from the sale of opium and heroin to finance its operations.


Violence and crime can be connected to drug and alcohol abuse in a variety of ways. These include an individual's response to a particular drug or alcohol, a person's coping mechanism to try and escape someone else's abuse, violent crimes associated with drug trafficking, or violent crimes committed while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Violence would exist in our society even if substance abuse did not. Yet there is no doubt that many violent behaviors are directly related to drug and alcohol abuse.

see also Child Abuse and Drugs; Crime and Drugs; Drug Traffickers; Terrorism and Drugs.