How economic recessions and unemployment affect illegal drug use: A systematic realist literature review

Int J Drug Policy. 2017 Jun;44:69-83. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2017.03.013. Epub 2017 Apr 25.


Background: Economic recessions may influence illegal drug use via different mechanisms, for example increased use due to more psychological distress or decreased use due to lower incomes and purchasing power. This paper reviews the literature on how economic recessions and unemployment affect the use of illegal drugs among adults.

Methods: We conducted a systematic realist literature review, which is an explanatory method that aims to understand underlying mechanisms that connect an event to an outcome in a specific context. A systematic search was performed in EconLit, Embase, Medline, PsycINFO, SocIndex, and Web of Science for studies examining mechanisms explaining how recessions or unemployment affect illegal drug use.

Results: We synthesized 28 studies published between 1990 and 2015. Most evidence (17 studies) was found for the counter-cyclical mechanism that recessions and unemployment increase psychological distress, which increases drug use. Mainly supportive evidence for this mechanism was found in several high quality studies, in different contexts, and in a diverse number of countries and samples. In contrast, decreased income did not seem to decrease drug use (10 studies). Little evidence was available on the non-working time mechanism (4 studies) and the social exclusion mechanism (5 studies). Most of the studies that did examine these latter mechanisms confirmed the hypothesized counter-cyclical associations.

Conclusion: The current evidence is in line with the hypothesis that drug use increases in times of recession because unemployment increases psychological distress which increases drug use. During times of recession, psychological support for those who lost their job and are vulnerable to drug use (relapse) is likely to be important.

Keywords: Economic recession; Illegal drug use; Realist review; Systematic review; Unemployment.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Economic Recession*
  • Humans
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Unemployment*