Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Age of Illicit Drug Initiation

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Age of Illicit Drug Initiation

Article excerpt

The earlier that people start to use illicit drugs, the more likely it is that there will be longer term adverse effects. Those who use drugs and commit crime are likely to have started using drugs earlier than drug users who do not have criminal careers.

This research has found that among sentenced property offenders, the average beginning age for regular use of cannabis was 14.7 years (compared to 18.4 years for use in the community as a whole) while for amphetamines, heroin and cocaine, the average age of regular use was under 20 for those who commit property offences. For these drugs, the average age of regular use is not significantly different for those who are sentenced for property offences and those users in the general community.

Working from diverse data sources, this paper focuses on age of drug initiation and provides an information base for policy development.

Adam Graycar


Anecdotal evidence over the past several years, as shown in newspapers and on television news reports, suggests that young people in Australia are experimenting with drugs at younger ages. Recent research has supported this impression with the finding that among the general population, the age of initiation has been decreasing from older to younger age cohorts (Degenhardt, Lynskey & Hall 2000). This should be a matter of concern for policy-makers. Considerable research has shown that early initiation into drug use is associated with a number of later problems. Those initiating use at an early age:

* are "more likely to continue alcohol and drug use, to be associated with delinquent peers, and to participate in deviant activities" (Zhang, Wieczorek & Weite 1997, p. 260);

* will use significantly more illicit drugs over the course of their lives than those who initiate use later (Caulkins et al. 1999, p. 60); and

* are at greater risk of unintentional overdose, and are more likely to get involved in poly-drug use and criminal activity (Lynskey &Hall 1998, p. 13).

Such behaviour not only has personal costs (for example, for families) but also consumes considerable public resources. For example, there is an impact on schools, community groups and government organisations. Some consequences for law enforcement policy-makers are in the following areas:

* dealing with the association between heroin use and increasing rates of acquisitive crime (Stevenson & Forsythe 1998; Makkai 2000);

* addressing road safety issues, with increasing rates of illicit drug use amongst drivers (Drummer 1995);

* having to respond quickly to changes in illicit drug use and associated criminal activity, as evidenced by the rapid increase in crack cocaine and associated increases in armed robbery in the United States during the 1980s (Baumer et al. 1998); and

* understanding the impact of street dealing on local communities and small business (Fitzgerald & Hope 2000).

These sorts of problems require considerable investment of public resources. Some of them, such as drug- and drink-driving, require that scarce police resources be devoted to traffic duties rather than to other criminal activity, such as property crime. Given that early initiation is associated with both increased drug use and increased criminal activity, which in turn are associated with each other, criminal justice policymakers and practitioners need to see prevention of drug uptake, or at least the delaying of the onset of drug use, as a crime prevention tool. It is also vital that policy-makers have sufficient knowledge and research about entry into illicit drug use to underpin prevention strategies.

This paper will attempt to provide some further information on the question of age of drug use initiation and relevant policy implications by examining four recent drug use studies. Data for this comparison will be taken from the 1998 National Drug Strategy Household Survey (NDS Household Survey), the 1999 Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS), the 1999 Drug Use Monitoring in Australia (DUMA) project and the 1998 Illicit Drugs and Property Crime survey. …

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