The Link Between Crime and Opioid Use

In addition to the sale and possession of drugs being a crime, there are a number of crimes associated with Opioid use. For a portion of the nearly 948,000 people who report using Heroin each year in particular, crime and Opioid use are intricately linked. Also, Opioid-related criminal offenses can include crimes directly related to supporting an addiction (such as stealing to pay for drugs). Moreover, many people abusing Opioids lead a lifestyle that prompts them to associate with others engaged in illicit activity (including violent crimes, trafficking, and prostitution).

With studies starting in the 1950s, researchers have demonstrated the reciprocal relationship between drugs and crime, especially and Heroin. This link is typically explained in three ways:

  1. Opioid abuse triggers an individual to commit crimes (either due to “economic necessity” or changes in the brain caused by Opioids).
  2. Involvement in criminal activity leads to Opioid abuse.
  3. Opioid abuse and crime share a common foundation within the individual (i.e. the same risk factors, such as antisocial behavior or homelessness).

Heroin and Drug-Seeking Behavior

For those without a history of drug dependence, it can be confusing why people would continue to use drugs after facing penalties from the criminal justice system. However, the mind of a person suffering from an Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) can be radically different from that of the general population. Opioids fundamentally change the way the brain functions, forcing a person to focus solely on maintaining their addiction.

While many people start abusing Opioids for the rush of euphoria and pain-relieving effects, the body quickly becomes dependent on these drugs to produce these sensations. Heroin, for instance, is a powerful Opioid that with repeated use can turn voluntary drug use to an irresistible compulsion. When people stop using Opioids, agonizing symptoms of withdrawal can force them to turn to criminal behaviors to be able to pay for more drugs.

In one study of repeat offenders, the rate of offending jumped significantly after Opioid use began.

Studies show that Opioid abuse not only is strongly linked to criminal behavior but is a major cause for the escalation of criminal activity. For instance, some adolescents may participate in misdemeanor crimes (such as smoking Marijuana or driving illegally). Then, the onset of Opioid abuse will aggravate that behavior, leading to crimes like felony theft and possession.

Opioid-Related Crime


Among federal and state prisoners, 20.7% reported ever using Heroin or other Opiates; 12% used them regularly.


In one study of 4,069 people addicted to Heroin, the participants committed over 500,000 over an 11-year period.


Women who abuse Opiates are 4.7 times more likely to shoplift than non-users; men who abuse Opiates are 3.5 times as likely.

The Importance of Drug Prevention Programs

Drug law violations are the most common type of criminal violation in the U.S. Moreover, approximately half of state and federal prisoners met the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) criteria for drug dependence or a Substance Use Disorder. Yet, of the individuals surveyed, less than 20% received any necessary treatment.

People abusing Opioids have an average of 6 times more crime-days per year when using, compared to abstinent periods in the same people.

More so than any form of punishment, addiction treatment offers the best, evidence-based solution to recovery. For the people caught up in the criminal justice system, addiction treatment can include therapy provided to prisoners, treatment mandated by a parole board, and community-based treatment centers and support groups after release.