The role of critical moments in young offenders’ drug-using trajectories

Franca Beccaria (Eclectica, Institute for Research and Training, Turin, Italy)
Sara Rolando (Eclectica, Institute for Research and Training, Turin, Italy)

Drugs and Alcohol Today

ISSN: 1745-9265

Article publication date: 18 June 2019

Issue publication date: 8 August 2019



The purpose of this paper is to explore the relationship between drug use and offending by using the concept of critical moments as an analytical tool.


In total, 41 semi-structured individual interviews with young people (15–25 years) using drugs and in touch with the criminal justice system (CJS) were conducted.


Analysing critical moments in young people’s drug use contributes to explaining some of the multiple, possible links between drug use and offending. Institutional factors emerged as important, as well as social and economic inequality. This was in particular clear when comparing students’ and immigrants’ trajectories.

Research limitations/implications

Limitations are due to the difficulties in getting access to prisoners and young people in touch with the CJS and the possibility to meet them only once with time limits due to the setting.

Practical implications

Prevention intervention addressed to this target group could take young people’s social contexts and everyday life situation into consideration.

Social implications

To decrease both offending and drug use, structural measures aimed at decreasing social inequalities would be more effective than punishment.


The study proposes a practical way to analyse narratives of young people who have experienced both drug use and offending and to show the importance of socially structured patterns without reducing the complexity of the topic.



Beccaria, F. and Rolando, S. (2019), "The role of critical moments in young offenders’ drug-using trajectories", Drugs and Alcohol Today, Vol. 19 No. 3, pp. 197-207.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited


The connection between drug use and offending or between drugs and crime has been debated in the sociological and criminological field since the beginning of the twentieth century with attempts to determine a causal direction (Beccaria and Prina, 2016; Laidler, 2016), but without definitive results (Laidler, 2016, p. 95). Numerous studies have shown a statistical association between drug use and offending. The great majority of these studies have taken a point of departure in people imprisoned or enrolled in drug treatment. In both cases, strong correlations were found between drugs and crime (Bean, 2014; Nurco et al., 1985). Allen (2007), however, emphasises that the correlations do not necessarily mean that “drugs cause crime” or vice versa, but simply that the two phenomena often co-exist. On the other hand, researchers also hypothesise that a range of “third variables” associated to “an underlying lifestyle” are the cause of both offending and drug use (Allen, 2007). Following this, many factors have to be taken into consideration to understand the relationship between drug use and offending, including type of drugs used, motives of drug use (recreational, pharmaceutical, etc.) (Allen, 2007), the context for drug use (Zinberg, 1984), what type of offending one is involved in (selling, being part of a gang, etc.) (Howell and Decker, 1999), etc. To provide an even more complex picture, the drug market has to be included as well, since the relationship between the consumer and the supplier is not always clear (cf. Parker, 2000), but also because both consuming and supplying can be the entry into the criminal justice system. Exploring drug use trajectories and their interconnections with offending trajectories, therefore, appears both challenging and crucial (Hser et al., 2007; Allen, 2007). Hence, these trajectories need to be explored in the light of the person’s specific social context characterised by cultural, economic, institutional and normative dimensions and by interactions with other people in different spheres, such as familial, relational, educational and working.

Within the broader framework of a European project on young drug users in touch with the criminal justice system (CJS) – Exchanging Prevention practices on Polydrug use among youth in Criminal justice systems ([1] – this paper focusses on drug-using trajectories of young offenders based on 41 interviews with young people aged 15–25 years.

In general, drug use and offending trajectories are characterised by transitions, often triggered by particular episodes or experiences (Hser et al., 2007; Allen, 2007). These key moments in an individual’s biography have been differently defined in the scientific literature, as, for example, “turning points” (Mandelbaum, 1973), “career breaks” (Humphrey, 1993), “fateful moments” (Giddens, 1991), or “stressful events” (Pearlin, 1989). In the present work, we have borrowed and adapted Thomson et al.’s (2002, p. 339) concept of “critical moment” as a particular event having important consequences on the biographies of individuals and their identities. We choose this concept as appropriate to uncover the role of social structures and cultural resources on both drug use and offending trajectories, thereby potentially providing new insights also on their many possible relationships. The concept of “critical moment” is, however, not exempt from criticisms. In particular it has been questioned how the events highlighted in narrative interviews as “critical moments” can be interpreted in relation to what really happened. However, as Bruner (1987, p. 31) emphasises: “ways of telling and ways of conceptualizing that go with them become so habitual that they finally become recipes for structuring experience itself, for laying down routes into memory”. We therefore understand the description of a critical moment in the interviewees’ narratives as “a middle path between the way young people talk about their lives and what actually happens to them” (Thomson et al., 2002, p. 351). From an analytical point of view, we adopt the definition of “critical moment” as “an event described in an interview that either the researcher or the interviewee sees as having important consequences for their lives and identities” (Thomson et al., 2002, p. 339). Furthermore, Thomson et al. (2002) proposes two possible ways to analyse critical moments. The first way is by focussing on the interviewees’ perceptions of being in control of events. From this point of view, critical moments can be mapped along a continuum, whose extremes are represented by “choice” and “fate”, respectively. A second way of mapping critical moments is to analyse which of them often recur together, that is, investigating “clusters” of critical moments. This latter kind of analysis – which we use in the present study – indicates not only the links between critical moments and developments of drug use or offending trajectories, but also links with socio-economic conditions, thereby enabling comparisons to be made across individual narratives and therefore also increase a more general understanding of how and why young people respond in a different way to similar events.

In the Results section, we will first provide an overview of critical moments that emerged from the interviewees’ narratives, then we will analyse the two main individuated clusters of critical moments.

Sample and methods

The 41 qualitative interviews with drug experienced young people in contact with the CJS were conducted in several different places. The recruitment and interviews took place between September 2017 and July 2018.

We started out by getting authorisation from the Penitentiary Administration Department and the Minors and Community Justice Department. We recruited mainly in North-West Italy within four types of services: detention centres for minors; services in charge of administering external penal sanctions – i.e. measures alternative to prison – for adults and minors; a unit of the addiction services reserved specifically for minors with penal problems; and prisons. In total, seven different institutions agreed to participate, as described in Table I. More institutions were contacted, but some did not have detainees with the required characteristics; in others, professionals were too busy to organise the interviews, or some institutions reported difficulties convincing young people to participate.

Professionals who helped the researchers with the recruitment were provided with a short description of the research design and aims together with a consent form. In the case of minors, the consent required the signature of a parent or guardian – which made it more difficult to get minors involved. Despite the initial difficulties in getting appointments, in some detention centres, once we started to conduct interviews other young people, who formerly had not given their consent, asked to be interviewed. It was particularly difficult to reach female interviewees, which is not surprising since women represent only a minimum percentage of the target group[2].

The interview guide consisted of a list of topics aimed at stimulating a spontaneous narrative by the interviewee. They included two main areas for investigation: the drug use trajectory and their involvement in any kind of drug prevention initiative/treatment path within the CJS. Offending was also investigated, but mainly in relation to drug use rather than as a topic per se. In order to focus on “critical moments” we asked both specific questions related to events and time and asked the young persons to draw a timeline graph and add important events on the line and comment on it.

All interviews were conducted by the authors and lasted on average 40 min. They were audio-taped and verbatim transcribed. The analysis was performed using ATLAS.ti, a computer-assisted qualitative data analysis software. The coding process – intended as both data and theory driven – focussed specifically on emerging critical moments and particularly on their impact on both the use of drugs and engagement in offending. Table II provides an overview of the 41 interviewees. Most interviewees are young male adults aged 18–25 detained in prison for dealing or robbery. In half of the cases, this is not the first penalty; 17 out of 41 young people are immigrant, including 7 illegally present in Italy; and 6 out of 41 are second generation.


Mapping critical moments in drug use and offending trajectories

We will start by mapping out different kinds of critical moments that occurred in the interview and construct overall categories related to them. As shown in Table III, we have identified six different categories. We will describe in more detail how the different categories were described as “critical moments” by our interviewees.

The first category we have identified is family. We noticed in the interviews that – in line with previous studies (Newburn, 1999; Allen, 2007) – a high number of interviewees had separated or divorced parents. According to our interviewees, separation or divorce resulted in an increase in the use of substances not only in order to cope with the upset, but also because of feelings of decreased control. Another result of having separated parents was possibility of difficult relationships with stepparents. A recurrent feature found in our data was difficulties with parents/stepparents that resulted in fights and/or abuse of young people. Problematic relationships with parents or stepparents also resulted in running away from home, another cited critical moment. This was the case, for instance, of one interviewee, who was “turned out of the home” by his father when he was caught using drugs, resulting in an increase of both drug use and crime. A last emphasis was shortage of money in the home, which, for Carlo, Matteo and Paolo, was a reason to start drug dealing in order “to get things that others had”.

A second category is relationships with peers/partners. Meeting new friends was frequently quoted by our interviewees as the event initiating the onset of drug use or the use of new substances; equally, friends can introduce a young person to offending, as Andrea says in the following quotation:

I met a friend of mine, who introduced me very much to the criminal world, since hanging out with him, he showed me things that I never saw [before]. I’m not a rich kid but neither one living in public housing. […] He introduced me to people who spent more time in prison than out.

(INT. 8_BP2_M_17)[3]

Losing a meaningful relationship with a friend can be a terrible blow for a young person, as the following quote suggests, when Said heard – after release – that his friend had died:

Since then, I shut myself at home for almost a month. After that month, as soon as I left, I went to look for adventures. I started doing things […] I mean, I was no longer interested in policemen, judges […] This is what I got wrong. I did things without thinking about consequences. Because you come to a certain point that you do not care anymore, because you say: “In any case, [things can’t go] worse than in this way”.


The quote shows how friendship can be so important as to over-ride the sense of everything else, including the risk of getting arrested, therefore possibly also increasing offending. This resembles Allen’s (2007) observations about young offenders dealing with bereavement. The influence of boy/girlfriends is similar to that of friends. However, in our predominantly male sample the most recurrent pattern, i.e. having/losing a girlfriend often includes another specific element, that is women’s role of limiting their partners’ consumption, and, in this case, also crime activities. Furthermore, loosing meaningful relationships – parents, friends, etc. – is among the reasons why immigration (third category) represents, for all those who experienced it, a critical moment. In the narratives, moving country often contributed to an increase in the use of illicit drugs and marked the start of offending, mainly dealing. This multifaceted relationship will be addressed further in the cross-reference.

A fourth category is related to school and education. Especially leaving school – which implies having more time to do other things, such as using drugs with friends – and moving school. For instance, Antonio, when he attended the first year of secondary high school, was forced to move schools by his parents after they discovered that he smoked cannabis. However, in the new smaller school, his use of cannabis increased and in addition he started to deal to schoolmates, according to what he reported, as a consequence of the increased need of money.

Another category is related to the employment status and thereby also having an income. Getting or losing/not finding a job is described as having an impact on drug use and offending trajectories. In the following quote, Ergi explains how working is a source of satisfaction and identity, thereby decreasing the need of using drugs:

For a while I did not [use drugs] because I had pulled myself out, I was no longer interested in that world, let’s say, because I was fine, I was working, I had my money […] When I started [to use drugs] it was because I had no job and doing nothing takes you on the wrong path. On the contrary, in that period [when I got the job] I was happy because I had my things, I was working – I worked a lot, 10-11 hours every day – but it was fine.

(INT. 1_BP1_M_23)

However, when Ergi’s contract was not renewed and he could not find another job, he started to use cocaine again and to deal as a source of income. While dealing was seen as an income, as well as a way to support one’s one drug use, starting to deal was also reported by several interviewees as increasing the use of drugs. First, because it was difficult to abstain when having drugs in one’s possession to deal and, second, because dealing was stressful and required the use of drugs to face it. According to Paolo, this is especially true in the case of cocaine, as it is well known that different types of drugs have different effects:

Dealing cocaine you always are in bad situations. Bad things always happen, when dealing such a substance. Then you get nervous and you fall into it again. When you have problems, you face them with a cocaine strip.

(INT. 33_PRI_M_22)

A sixth category focuses specifically on substances, including descriptions of change in intensity of drug use as well as change in the drugs used. Cannabis was the most used substance in our sample, and becoming a daily smoker emerged in many cases as a critical moment in that it increased the need for money to buy cannabis, which, in turn, could possibly initiate dealing in order to get free supplies. Starting to use cocaine, the second most used substance in our sample, emerged as another critical moment in our interviewees’ description of their trajectories, since according to the interviewees, it is both more expensive and addictive. Furthermore, interviewees often reported that use of cocaine requires the combined use of other substance such as cannabis, alcohol or heroin. Finally, differently from cannabis, cocaine was reported by several interviewees as having a direct causal nexus with their offending, because of its pharmacological properties:

Joints did not make me do crimes […] when I smoked I was too frightened to do it […] but when I took cocaine I was the one to say: “Let’s go, we need money” […] It made me feel powerful, very awake.

(INT. 41_CO_F_18)

Starting to smoke crack cocaine instead of snorting powder cocaine is considered another “jump”, as Paolo called it, in drug use trajectories, with consequences also on offending trajectories. Crack, indeed, was reported as more addictive than snorted cocaine and as leading to an exponential increase in amounts taken.

The last individuated category is getting in touch with the CJS. While this obviously represented a critical point for all our interviewees, it did it in different ways according to different sanctions applied to the young person as well as to personal social resources. Being caught was usually reported by our interviewees as decreasing both drug use and offending, at least for a while. However, cases of those reoffending after a first sentence prevailed in the sample, reflecting a rather common fact within the CJS (Beccaria and Rolando, 2017). In general, entering prison more frequently resulted in a decrease or cessation of drug use, when compared to entering alternative measures, such as home arrest or community services. This is mainly because of reduced availability of illegal drugs and fear of consequences on the punishment within the CJS if caught using drugs, such as losing the right to obtain home licences. Some detainees considered imprisonment an opportunity to stay away from drugs for a while, thereby stressing the influence of the context on their drug use. Indeed, once released, so they told us, it was difficult to maintain abstinence. For this reason, release represents another critical moment when the likelihood of using drugs increases, especially in the absence of social reintegration activities, as will be better explained in the following section.

The role of socio-economic conditions: two types of clusters of critical moments

Following Thomson et al.’s (2002) suggestion, in the following, we will look into the most frequently described links between critical moments, called “clusters”, in order to unpick in more detail how these interact with drug use and offending trajectories in specific subgroups. Two main types of clusters emerged from the data, related to the two specific target groups of our sample: young people born in Italy, who were under alternative measures; and young illegal immigrants detained in prison.

Young people enrolled in Spazio Blu – a special unit of a local public addiction service situated in Milan and targeted at young offenders – and a few other interviewees sentenced to alternative measures were largely students. The descriptions of critical moments in the interviews from this subsample individuated a particular cluster of critical moments represented in Figure 1.

Many of them were “ordinary” students – that is not necessarily with poor school performances – belonging to “ordinary” families, not necessarily with low economic or social resources. However, a recurrent feature was that parents were either separated or divorced and that they did not exercise a high level of control over their children. In this subgroup made up of Italians or second generation immigrants, the onset of drug use often coincided with the beginning of secondary high school, at the age of 14–15. Here, they met new friends at school and experimented with cannabis. This was reported as something really “ordinary” and therefore, somehow, ineluctable:

I do not remember it very well, it is like driving, it’s not that I remember […] but I think the first time is something you do not look for […] when a friend offers it to you.

(INT. 13_ALT_M_21)

Continued use of cannabis was as seen an occasional activity for mainly recreational purposes (e.g. increasing fun). However, after a while, from between a few months to a few years, they all became daily users. The young interviewees described how, during this period, reasons for using cannabis changed, from fun and smoking to intoxication with friends, to smoking alone, especially in the evening, in order to get to sleep. Cannabis was also reportedly used to increase self-confidence and school performances. Antonio, who is a university student with good school performances, reported smoking cannabis in order to prevent anxiety and to study better (INT. 14_ALT_M_20). Luca told us that it gave him “much self-confidence, both in terms of image and psychological self-confidence” (INT. 13_ALT_M_21). They also reported in the interviews, that when they ended up smoking joints instead of cigarettes, many times a day, reaching in some cases 10 grams a day, their need for money increased too. This was reported as one of the main reasons for starting to buy larger amounts of cannabis, partly in order to sell to friends, thereby saving up or getting personal doses for free. However, once having discovered how you can make money easily, the purposes of dealing can go beyond the original ones, as Marco said:

After that, when I saw that to get money it was sufficient to do so, I became more obsessed – so to speak – by money than by the drug itself.

(INT. 39_ALT_M_19)

Becoming the school dealer can even increase popularity, which was the case with Massimo, who especially liked being appreciated and respected as the school dealer, a sort of social supplier of recreational drugs and a way to increase his self-esteem by getting a role in society:

Being able to do something that would make me feel more adult, that would make me be noticed, also because I had serious problems of bullying before […]. Then I realized that the dealer was just, almost a role, in the school society, I mean […] there was the nerd, the bully, the normal guy and the drug dealer, who - as opposed to how he was seen years ago […] when he was a bad person, that is, even the consumers were disgusted by the drug dealer, especially because the drugs were different. Now marijuana, let’s say it’s like alcohol for people.

(INT. 40_ALT_M_17)

The fact of being denounced forced Massimo, as well as other interviewees, to become aware that, although use of cannabis is perceived as normal, dealing it is an illegal behaviour. This is often traumatic, but getting in touch with innovative services such as Spazio Blu – that is, receiving psychosocial support at individual as well as familial level (Rolando and Beccaria, 2018) – can become a resource in their biographies, both with respect to family relationships – parents are involved in the treatment path too – and to the discovery of alternative lifestyles through social activities, such as teaching children to skateboard:

While they (professionals) have also helped us to converse within the family, which […] is also useful for personal growth, for any situation. […] After probation, there would also be the opportunity to be paid by this association to do the lessons, which I like a lot, so I will probably continue it. […] To do sport is fruitful, it makes you stop thinking as much as drugs, much more in fact, and, in addition, it is healthy and funny.

(INT. 15_ALT_M_19)

The second typical cluster emerged from narratives of a subgroup of young people who had illegally migrated to Italy, especially from North Africa. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, according our participants’ narratives, immigration increases the likelihood that young people start to use drugs or increase their consumption (Figure 2).

The interviewees provided several explanations for this. The increase in drug use, for instance, was explained by many as a consequence of being in Italy alone, out of parental control and in a place environment? Where drugs are more accessible than in the country of origin. In addition, according to some North Africans, smoking hashish with fellow countrymen can be a way of joining the community of origin in the new country:

Since I came to Italy I found all the drugs I wanted, I found all the freedom I want. So I started to use cocaine also.

(INT. 32_PRI_M_21)

Furthermore, a vicious circle was frequently reported about the work issue; getting a job without a residence permit is not possible according to Italian law, equally it is not possible to apply for a residence permit without a job. Therefore, according to this subgroup of interviewees, losing or not finding a job, on the one hand, fosters an increase in drug use aimed at coping with the privations and the anguish of a precarious life. On the other hand, it means that dealing can represent the only available opportunity to get an income, which, in turn, was mentioned as a factor increasing consumption because of the easy access to drugs. The following quotation is an excerpt from an interview with a 23-year-old young man who, waiting for a residence permit, ended up living on the street and dramatically increased his consumption of alcohol and Rivotril, a benzodiazepine:

I was a barber in Tunis, I knew how to cut hair, but I did not have any documents for which reason no one took me on, so I started selling a bit of hashish. I started selling, and using it at the same time. Then after 3 years I started using cocaine because I was handling it, I was dealing it.

(INT. 03_CS1_M_23)

In turn, as the interviewees emphasised, having to manage substances increases amounts and frequency of consumption, which again made it more likely to be arrested. When talking about this critical moment, interviewees emphasised the role of specific substances, i.e. cocaine and crack – compared to cannabis – in decreasing their feelings of agency and control:

The monkey took me from the bottle[4]. When I no longer had the substance nearby, I started to go out to buy […] When I snorted, 3-5 grams were enough, when I started with the crack, I saw that 5 grams were not enough, I had to go and buy again, again, again. I was doing 35 grams a day.

(INT. 5_CS1_M_24)

It is no coincidence that many of them reported that they were arrested precisely during a peak in consumption. For this reason, one interviewee saw the sentence as an opportunity to take a break from drugs:

If I had not come to jail, I do not know how I would have ended up. I would be dead somewhere!

(INT. 03_CS1_M_23)

However, the concern of not being in control of their drug habit is especially relevant to release. Young immigrants were quite conscious that once got out of prison the problem of work would re-appear – even increased by having a criminal record – with the same influence on their drug use and offending trajectories:

I have to find my way out [of drugs]. Then you will see what I have to do outside. I would like to change my life, but let’s see […] It all depends if you can find a job.

(INT. 34_PRI_M_24)

To sum up, looking at critical moments, two kinds of clusters were identified, related to two specific target groups: young students under measures alternative to prison, and young illegal immigrants detained in prison. Critical moments included in the two types of clusters highlight the role of diverse life contexts and socio-economic systems in modelling consumption and offending trajectories, as it argued in the following.


We have used Thomson et al.’s (2002) concept of a critical moment as an analytical tool to investigate the drug use trajectories of young offenders in order to better understand a long-debated relationship between drug use and offending (Allen, 2007; Laidler, 2016). In particular, we have emphasised the influence of social and institutional dimensions on both drug use and offending trajectories, revealing also the role of social inequalities.

Our argument is that inequalities, first and foremost, are institutionalised. Our sample reflects a broader gap in the Italian law and CJS, where immigrants are over-represented in prison. According to the last Report to the Parliament (DPA, 2016), they represented 37 per cent of the whole adult population detained in 2016, a percentage even higher among minors entering the first reception centres for minors (53 per cent in 2014) (Marietti, 2015). As scholars pointed out (Mosconi, 2010; Vianello, 2012), this is because they can rarely access alternative measures to detention, due to their lack of social and material resources (e.g. a house) required by the Law. This is particularly true for immigrants illegally present in Italy, for whom every kind of preventive, pedagogical and rehabilitation intervention risks being interrupted, thereby losing effectiveness, because of the threat of expulsion (Marietti, 2015). The vicious circle between residence permit and work contract illustrated above emphasises how the working sphere impacts both on drug use and on offending trajectories. On the one hand, motives to use drugs when you are unemployed are pharmaceutical – to cope with stress and anxiety – rather than recreational. On the other hand, in certain cases dealing drugs can be the only income opportunity at hand, maybe even a way to feel part of a community. Handling drugs, however, can easily lead to increased consumption and possibly also to trying out new drugs. In our data, shifts towards cocaine and especially crack were recognised by young offenders as a very negative critical moment leading to increased criminal activity and loss of control over drugs. All in all, the immigrants’ cluster shows that crime and drug use can be two aspects of the same social context, with bidirectional influences. Indeed most of these interviewees were already cannabis users – either recreational or daily – when they arrived in Italy; but in their countries of origin, they usually had not been involved in offending. However, they reported that the use of cocaine and especially of crack led some of them to commit more crimes or more serious crimes, due both to the disinhibiting effect of the substance and the increased need for money because of increased expenses. Furthermore, the use of crack, in particular, was reported by the interviewees as the reason why they were arrested, since they were not clear headed enough. A characteristic of this cluster of critical moments is the interviewees’ recurrent perception of lack of agency, understood as individual capacity to make their own choices and consequently to shape their life (Hitlin and Elder, 2007) such as getting a regular job and not having control over certain substances.

The students’ typical cluster, in turn, shows how drug use and crime can both derive from within a totally different social context, which needs to be understood by leaving aside the old definition of drug use as social problem (Hunt and Barker, 2001). Italian students’ narratives are close to that of most substance users who have social profiles that comply with social norms (Williams and Parker, 2001; Pearsons, 2001). In particular, their approach to the use of cannabis reflects the fact that also in Italy cannabis has undergone a normalisation process (Parker et al., 2002). This is reflected not only by the perception that everybody uses it, but also by the casual way in which some interviewees started to deal it, without any worry about possible consequences. Yet, consistent with its illegal status, cannabis users still face the threat of legal sanctions, especially those who decide to buy for their friends as well, because they have the right contacts or are the smartest in surfing the darknet. Penal consequences obviously entail a process of stigmatisation that can be very traumatic for young students (Lyons, 2006). However, Italian students are not likely to end up in prison for dealing, certainly not as a result of the first offence; it is more likely they will be put on probation, with the suspension of criminal proceedings (Law No. 67/2014, cf. Beccaria and Rolando, 2017). This measure usually includes a social service programme and a treatment path, which requires the young people’s agency – defined as “capacity, resistance and transition” (Hitlin and Elder, 2007, p. 182) – and can turn out to be a resource for those who already have some, e.g. a caring family (Rolando and Beccaria, 2018). From the narratives typical of this cluster, we can also get further information on the relationship between offending and drug use. Although many young interviewees stated that they had started to sell cannabis in order to maintain their own consumption, yet they also explained how, after a while, reasons to do it can change. That is to say that once you discover how easy it is to make money by dealing, it becomes tempting beyond the initial purpose. It can also be exciting – as well as drug use – and even socially gratifying.

The present study contributes to empirically explain some of the multiple, possible links between drug use and offending in the manifold contemporary social and institutional context, which makes it even less suitable to attempt to delineate a clear causal relationship (Allen, 2007). In addition, it suggests that social inequalities and perception of agency can explain drug use and offending trajectories better than single events or critical moments. The results also suggest that in order to reduce both drug use and offending the most effective interventions should be done at social structural level in order to reduce the reproduction of inequalities in accessing social and economic resources (e.g. lack of jobs and/or house) and at the legislative level to eliminate the boundaries that impede the rehabilitation function that penalty should entail, in particular for marginalised people. In other words, measures alternative to prison should be made available also to immigrants. On the other hand, preventive interventions addressed to young offenders who also use drugs should be broad and inter-sectorial, they should encourage their agency, leaving the subjects to become an active part of the rehabilitation process, starting from their goals and their capacity for self-determination.


First type of cluster

Figure 1

First type of cluster

Second type of cluster

Figure 2

Second type of cluster


Recruitment channel and city No. of interviews
A special section of the prison called “Attenuated Custody” (ICATT), Padova 8
A special unit of the local public addiction service called Spazio Blu (Blue Space) targeted at young users in touch with the CJS, Milano 7
Juvenile penitentiary institution (IPM), Torino 9
Prison, Biella 9
Prison, Fossano 3
Juvenile social services office of the justice Department (USSM), Torino 1
Interdistrict office for external penal execution (UEPE), Torino 4

Sample description

Sex   Age Partner Children Immigrant
Male 39 15–17 3 Yes 14 Yes 4 Yes 17
Female 2 18–25 38 No 27 No 37 No 24
Type of crime and penalty
Crime First penalty Measure
Dealing 21 Yes 20 Prison 29
Robbery 13 No 21 Alternative measure 9
Armed/Aggravated robbery 4 Home arrest 2
Aggravated injuries 3 Community 1
Others (trafficking, rape, aggression, etc.) 5

Map of critical moments emerging from interviews

Family Work and income
 Separation/Divorce of parents  Losing/Getting a job
 Death of parents  Starting to deal emigration
 Fight with parents/stepparents  Moving country
 Run away from home Change of substance
 Becoming parents  Becoming a daily user
Relationship  Starting to use cocaine
 Meeting new friends  Starting to use crack
 Death of friend CJS
 Breaking up with girlfriend/boyfriend/partner  Being caught
Education  Receiving a criminal conviction
 Changing school  Entering/Exiting from prison
 Leaving school  Entering/Exiting from therapeutic community



The project 768162/EPPIC, which has received funding from the European Union’s Health Programme (2014–2020). The content of this editorial represents the views of the authors only and is their sole responsibility; it cannot be considered to reflect the views of the European Commission and/or the Consumers, Health, Agriculture and Food Executive Agency or any other body of the European Union. The European Commission and the Agency do not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains. See also


This is deductible from other data, though there are not precise data on this specific target (Rolando and Beccaria, 2018).


Quotations are accompanied by a code indicating the country, the interview number, the measure (home arrest (HO), therapeutic community (CO), prison (PRI), other alternative measures (ALT)), gender (M/F) and the age (no. of years).


In jargon “monkey” refers to abstinence, while the bottle refers to the way crack is smoked.


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Further reading

Hatsukami, D.K. and Fischman, M.W. (1996), “Crack cocaine and cocaine hydrochloride: are the differences myth or reality?”, JAMA, Vol. 276 No. 19, pp. 1580-8.

Corresponding author

Franca Beccaria is the corresponding author and can be contacted at:

About the authors

Franca Beccaria (PhD) is Sociologist, Partner in Eclectica, a research institute in Torino (Italy), Contract Professor at the EMDAS, European Master on Drug and Alcohol Studies, University of Piemonte Orientale and at the University of Torino (Italy). Her main research interests are drinking cultures, drugs, health promotion and sociology of health.

Sara Rolando (PhD Sociologist) has been working as Social Researcher at Eclectica (Turin) since 2007. She achieved Doctoral Degree at the University of Helsinki, Finland, with a thesis comparing youth drinking cultures in different geographies. An expert in qualitative, web-based and comparative methods, her main research interests are alcohol, gambling, drugs and other addictive behaviours.