The Curious (Dis)Connection between the Opioid Epidemic and Crime

Subst Use Misuse. 2017 Dec 6;52(14):1927-1931. doi: 10.1080/10826084.2017.1376685. Epub 2017 Sep 27.


Drug epidemics often bring with them an accompanying rise in crime. The heroin wave of the 1970's and crack crisis of the 1980's were each accompanied by major gun violence, including large numbers of murders and violent property crimes. The current United States opioid epidemic, however, has not been associated with either a rise in homicide or in property crime. In fact, crime rates have been declining for decades, and are now less than half their 1991 peak, despite an unprecedented spike of opioid overdose deaths that began in the late 1990's. These facts do not fit with the usual narrative about the link between drug addiction and criminal behavior. While the drugs-crime connection has always been far more nuanced than the way it is typically portrayed, there wasn't such a glaring disconnect between reality and mythology during the drug epidemics of the 1970's and 1980's. The mystery of the missing opioid crime explosion offers unique insight into the myths and realities of drug addiction. To explore this issue further, this commentary briefly summarizes the drugs-crime connection, contrasts the current opioid crisis with drug epidemics of the past, and provides possible explanations for the absence of an opioid-fueled crime wave.

Keywords: Addiction; crime; heroin; opioids; violence.

MeSH terms

  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • Cocaine Smoking / epidemiology
  • Cocaine Smoking / psychology
  • Correlation of Data
  • Crime / psychology
  • Crime / statistics & numerical data*
  • Epidemics / statistics & numerical data*
  • Gun Violence / psychology
  • Gun Violence / statistics & numerical data
  • Heroin Dependence / diagnosis
  • Heroin Dependence / epidemiology
  • Heroin Dependence / psychology
  • Homicide / psychology
  • Homicide / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / diagnosis
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / psychology
  • United States


  • Analgesics, Opioid