Drugs and Criminality

Writer: Therese Wilson

What does it mean to be a criminal? If you were to ask a child, they would probably respond with “a bad guy.” And, that sentiment of criminality being equivalent to a bad guy doing bad things is more or less the same application we hold in adolescence and adulthood. The issue is not this bare bones framework, but the more philosophical question about it. What does it mean to be bad? This post will aim to question whether or not we really have a good idea of what it is to be bad, specifically why drugs are or are not justifiably criminal.


As many other students with a basic health education, I learned about the detrimental effects of drug use on the brain. The bottom line, every single time, was to alert students that doing drugs was a recipe for disaster. While no one’s health has benefitted from using illicit drugs, to say a “recipe for disaster” was a bit much. In saying so, the substance of the who’s, what’s, and so on of drug use was glossed over. To supplement this, a speaker would come in to talk about their decline into drug use and subsequent addiction. Overwhelmingly, these speakers would talk about their criminal records in conjunction with drug use. The message of “don’t be me” was the final statement before asking for any questions. This left students with the idea that drugs are bad, and bad people do drugs.

But what is bad, really? In my personal experience, I have had a difficult time sorting it out. So, I went back to my thought processes as a child. Bad people do bad things, and bad things are actions that negatively affect other people. Using this model, it is a lot easier to suss out what makes a something bad and therefore criminal. Herein lies the issue of considering drugs to be criminal. With substance use issues, the only person at risk for direct harm is the person who is using. To say that a person who is harming themselves is criminal, the scope of who is a criminal would need to be broadened significantly. But as we know, someone who is harming themselves is not necessarily harming anyone else, nor are they a danger to society.

Labeling people with substance use issues as a danger to society deflects our attention from what is actually criminal. We are intentionally blurring the lines between a danger to oneself versus a danger to everyone else by considering drug possession intended for use as criminal activity. This makes it extremely more difficult for the average person to recognize criminality when faced with it. Under this model, people with addiction and people with domestic abuse are still labeled “criminal,” but we can recognize that these two things are very different. Is it fair to lump them under the same category?

The dismay in decriminalizing drugs is due to the general distaste for having drugs in communities. No one wants to have a drug problem occuring next door, and this could be for a variety of reasons. It could be as complex as deeper trauma and fear or as simple as you just don’t like the idea of it. It is likely that main reason we don’t want our neighbors to suffer from addiction is that we don’t want anything to do with it. By viewing it this way, we are perpetuating a cyclical issue of addiction and its presence. People are not able to get housing, to get help, and ultimately to get better because of the inhibitions presented by others. When viewed as unattractive, addiction is less likely to be recognized as a health issue by the general (and uninformed) public.

The bottom line is as of right now, drugs are not necessarily criminalized because of the dangers they present to the community, but rather because of the difficulty to accept their connoted negativity. Generally speaking, the person who is using is the most likely to get harmed when it comes to drugs. The way in which we speak about drugs currently makes it seem as though there’s no destination to arrive at other than drugs equal criminality. But, really, it’s not so simple. When we reconsider this bare boned reasons why, we can easily pick out the flaws in saying all drugs are criminal, and the people who use them are too.