Substance Mis-Use and Crime

Alcohol and illicit drug misuse make an enormous contribution to crime in Scotland. The Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police recently stated “Most violence in the West of Scotland was linked to alcohol”[44]. He also identified the move toward buying alcohol from off-licenses and drinking at home may have shifted the locus away from pubs, where there was an element of supervision and control, to a domestic environment. Alcohol consumption remains very high in Scotland as detailed in Alcohol Statistics Scotland 2011 [45]. 27% of men and 10% women report drinking above the recommended weekly limits. Young people continue to drink most and are particularly prone to binge drinking. Alcohol, therefore, remains Scotland’s favourite drug.

Alcohol and crime

A recent review using multiple criteria and combining personal and social damage concluded that alcohol, heroin and cocaine, in that order, were the most damaging. Alcohol headed the list principally because of the damage that it caused to society and to those around the drinker46. Alcohol is a major factor in a very large proportion of crimes. Alcohol related crime alone is estimated to cost the Scottish economy £700 million per year [47]. Many of the offences where alcohol plays a significant part involve violence or public order and one in six deaths on British roads is caused by drink driving [48]. There were 8,504 drink-driving offences in Scotland in 2008/9 a decline of 13% from the previous year. It is well known that alcohol is a significant factor in all violent crime, including two thirds of homicide cases [49]. Seventy per cent of assaults presenting in Accident and Emergency wards may be alcohol related (QUIS 2006 – ibid footnote 50) and in 62% of violent crime, victims said that the offenders were under the influence of alcohol [50].

  • Latest information on drug use is from the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey: Drug Use section published 27th March 2012.
  • The executive summary from the SCJS drug use survey states:Just under one in four (23.7%) adults reported taking one or more illicit drug at some point in their lives even if it was a long time ago.One in fifteen (6.6%) adults reported using one or more illicit drug in the last year, i.e. the 12 months prior to the survey interview.

    One in twenty eight (3.5%) adults reported using one or more illicit drug in the last month, i.e. the month prior to survey interview.

    Cannabis was by far the drug most commonly reported in any of the three time periods asked about.

    Self-reported drug use among adults aged 16 or over in Scotland has decreased between 2008/09 and 2010/11. 6.6% of adults reported using drugs in the last year in 2010/11 compared with 7.2% in 2009/10 and 7.6% in 2008/09. Similarly 3.5% of adults reported using drugs in the last month in 2010/11 compared with 4.2% of adults in 2009/10 and 4.4% of adults in 2008/09. These decreases are statistically significant.

  • For general information regarding problem drug use in Scotland, see “Estimating the national and local prevalence of problem drug use in Scotland 2009/10” published 29th November 2011; Information Services Division, Scottish Government.


Prison population

Offenders are predominantly young, male, and from deprived backgrounds. Young males and binge drinkers are most likely to offend. There are significantly higher levels of reported alcohol misuse in remand and short stay prisoners, groups who hitherto have received little or no assistance with their problem. Statistics from the Scottish Prison Survey 2009 show that 45% of prisoners may be dependent on alcohol or drink in a harmful way. The comparable figure for all adult males in Scotland is 14%. Half of prisoners in Scotland reported being drunk at the time of their offence. This rises to 77% of young offenders. There has been a rise in a proportion of young offenders who believe that alcohol has contributed to their offending: 48% in 1979, 58% in 1996 and 80% in 2007. (The McKinlay Report: Alcohol & Violence Among Young Male Offenders (1979- 2009) SPS Research 2009). The “Alcohol and Offender Criminal Justice Research Programme 2010” showed that 71% of prisoners reported drinking in a hazardous way and 47% were drinking in a harmful way, possibly with dependency.


Recovery programmes

Each step in the offender pathway can provide an opportunity for effective interventions, which could aid recovery from an alcohol problem. This extends from first contact with the police, for example arrest referral schemes, through police custody, the courts, prison or community justice settings. In the past these opportunities have not been seized but there are signs that suitable training for front line workers in the skill of recognition and brief intervention and/ or referral to specialist help could ensure early intervention and prevent further alcohol related offending. There are plans to undertake a pilot project to evaluate the effectiveness of brief intervention in prison settings. (“Prison Health Needs Assessment for alcohol problems” (2010) Parkes T Macaskill S et al. NHS Scotland.) (
There has been a welcome increase in investment in alcohol services in recent years and it is hoped that offenders who are a “hard to reach” group with a high prevalence of alcohol problems will benefit from this. Appropriate services should be available not only in prison, but also more importantly within the community. At present Criminal Justice Social Work statistics 51 show over 11% of conditions attached to probation orders mentioned alcohol treatment or education. The combined action of Community Justice Authorities, social work, voluntary sector and NHS initiatives could ensure that the link between custody and re-entering into the community where so many people with alcohol problems come to grief would be resolved. This should be facilitated by the imminent change in the organisation of prison health services, which will soon be under the management of the NHS.


Prevention of Alcohol Related Crime

It is not possible to consider alcohol related crime in Scotland without regard to the culture of excessive drinking that has arisen in recent decades. There is overwhelming evidence
that the level of per capita consumption in the population is closely related to the level of harm experienced. The Scottish Government has recognised the damaging effect that alcohol is
having on the quality of life for many people in Scotland and as one part of its alcohol framework introduced the Alcohol Scotland Bill 2010. This bill aims to reduce the unacceptable levels of harm in Scotland which are related to alcohol use and was passed in November 2010. The new measures will restrict alcohol promotions on off-sales premises; ban quantity discounts; introduce a “challenge 25” age verification scheme; pave the way for a social responsibility levy on those who profit from the sale of alcohol.
These measures will aim to reduce availability and help to reduce public disorder related to alcohol. Sadly, one of the key elements of the bill, the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol, was defeated. Authorities commonly observed that the sale of very cheap alcohol fuelled excessive drinking and harm. An opportunity for reducing the level of crime in Scotland was therefore lost.

Illicit Drug Use in Scotland Although the level of use of illicit drugs has not changed significantly in recent years it remains high even on the basis of self reporting as demonstrated in the January 2011 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey of drug use in Scotland. “This report identifies the extent of self-reported illicit drug use ever, in the last year and in the last month and examines the experience of first drug use and drug use in the last month by adults aged 16 or over.”[52] The overall survey is the result of interviews and self-reporting from a total of 16,036 individuals (the number of people responding to the drugs section was 13,418). The report provides data for a useful baseline of illicit drug use in Scotland. From the executive summary, self reported drug use was summarised as53:


  • One in four (25.2%) adults had taken one or more illicit drug at some point in their lives, even if it was a long time ago.
  • 7.2% of adults had used one or more illicit drug in the last year, i.e. the 12 months prior to interview.
  • 4.2% had used one or more illicit drug in the last month, i.e. the month prior to interview.

The survey notes that “Cannabis was by far the drug most commonly reported as used in any time period. 22.9% of adults had taken cannabis at some point in their lives, 6.1% of adults
reported using cannabis in the last year and 3.6% reported using cannabis in the last month.”
“The next most common drugs that adults reported they had ever taken were amphetamines (7.6%), ecstasy (7.4%), cocaine (6.7%) and poppers (6.6%). Cocaine and ecstasy were the next most commonly reported drugs used after cannabis in the last year (2.1% and 1.9% respectively) and in the last month (0.7% each).”

Overall, illicit drug use is relatively common in the population, particularly amongst the young, and cannabis remains far and away the most frequently reported drug in this category. There have been fluctuations in the reported prevalence of drug misuse in recent years, but with little overall change. It is noteworthy that only 1% of adults interviewed reported taking heroin or methadone at some point in their lives and 0.5% had taken opiates either in the last year or in the last month. Heroin and methadone misuse, which figures so prominently in the prison population, is not widely used in the general population.
Victims of crime are significantly more likely than average to report using illicit drugs in the last year. Those people living in the most deprived areas of Scotland were much more likely to report having used drugs in the last year than adults living elsewhere in Scotland (10.8% compared with 6.6% respectively). Those who had used illicit drugs in the previous months had found them relatively easy to obtain.



Drug misuse remains a major factor in Scotland’s crime statistics. Seizures of illicit drugs have some impact on availability but users do not report a lot of difficulty in obtaining supplies. The underworld economy in drug trafficking continues to thrive and treatment and rehabilitation initiatives meet with limited success. It may be time to yet again reconsider our current strategy for prevention. It is also very clear that drug misuse and alcohol related crime tend to cluster in areas of deprivation which suggests that it is impossible to separate off the problems of substance misuse from those of socioeconomic deprivation and the political challenges which this presents. Victim Perspectives on Alcohol and Drugs Victims were asked whether they thought the offender(s) was under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the offence. For crimes involving force or violence or threats of force or violence, they were also asked if they themselves had taken any alcohol or drugs immediately before the incident took place. The estimates (shown below) may not reflect fully the proportion
of violent crimes involving alcohol accurately for two reasons: Victims may not be aware that the offender(s) was under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Alternatively, victims may  resume that the offender(s) was under the influence of either when they were not; victims may be reluctant to admit that they were under the influence of either alcohol or drugs to an interviewer and, in the case of drugs, they may be reluctant to admit they had taken an illegal substance.
The 2009/10 Scottish Crime & Justice Survey shows:

“In 62% of violent crime measured by the SCJS 2009/1054 , the victim said the offender(s) was under the influence of alcohol. This was a higher proportion than found in the BCS in England and Wales in 2009/10 where the victim reported that the offender(s) was under the influence of alcohol in 50% of violent crime“. “Victims reported that the offender(s) was under the influence of drugs in just over one in four (26%) violent crimes. Once again this was higher than the equivalent figure from the BCS for England and Wales for the same period (20% of violent crime)“. “In three in ten (30%) violent crimes, the victim said that they had consumed alcohol immediately before the incident“. “Victims said they had taken drugs immediately before the incident in one per cent of violent crime“.




43 greens&sessionid=68075438&skin=hudoc-en
44 Stephen House, reported on Scottish Television (STV), 26 November 2010.
45 Published by NHS National Services Scotland, Statistics Publication, 22 February 2011.
46 Nutt. D. King. L. Phillips.D. Lancet 2010; 376;1558-65
47 Societal costs of Alcohol Misuse in Scotland in 2007, University of York 2010.
48 Road Casualties in Great Britain 2007
49 Homicide in Scotland, 2009-10. Statistics Release, Scottish Government, Edinburgh, 13 December 2010.
50 2009/10 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey: Main Findings.(2010) Leon Page, Pat MacLeod, Andrea Kinver, Aibek Iliasov and Patricia Yoon, TNS-BMRB. Scottish Government Social Research, published in November 2010.

51 Source: Criminal Justice Social Work Statistics, 2009/10. Crime and Justice Series Statistical Bulletin. Scottish Government, 21 December 2010. Table 11.

52 2009/10 Scottish Crime and Justice Survey: Drug Use. Pat Mcleod, Leon Page. TNS BRMB. Scottish Government Social Research 2011.

Leave a Reply