Does Ritalin Reduce Crime or Does it Help Criminals Avoid Getting Caught?

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Nov. 26 2012 11:30 AM

Does Ritalin Reduce Crime or Does it Help Criminals Avoid Getting Caught?

Ritalin
Does Ritalin reduce crime or help criminals?

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

We all know that Ritalin is great for calming unruly children and helping college students cram for their midterms. But does it also help fight crime? The New York Times recently wrote up a study that purportedly showed that those who suffer from “serious attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” are less likely to commit crimes when they’re taking their medication. Pam Belluck reports:

Of 8,000 people whose medication use fluctuated over a three-year period, men were 32 percent less likely and women were 41 percent less likely to have criminal convictions while on medication. Patients were primarily young adults, many with a history of hospitalization. Crimes included assault, drug offenses and homicide as well as less serious crimes. Medication varied, but many took stimulants like Ritalin.
Advertisement

Though the study is preliminary, the results make some sense, if you assume that at least some criminal behavior stems from chemical imbalances in the brain. But the most interesting question raised by the Times story came from a Yale School of Public Health professor, who wondered if “[ADHD] medication is reducing crime or ‘making better criminals,’ who avoid arrest.”

Can drugs make better criminals? Beta-blockers like propranolol help stifle performance anxiety; this might be of use to bank robbers, safecrackers, or anyone else whose plans require steady hands and a controlled demeanor. Anabolic steroids can help you build muscle mass, which would be useful if your plan involves feats of speed or strength, such as racing out of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York with a gigantic sack of gold. Other drugs might be of some short-term use to crooks, but they usually carry unpleasant side effects. PCP, some say, bestows super-strength, but it also bestows crazy behavior; ask the rapper Big Lurch, currently serving a life sentence for killing and eating his roommate while under the influence. And while you’re on MDMA, you’ll have an enhanced appreciation for visual stimuli. This may help you detect the laser field guarding the jewels you’re planning to steal, but it will also make you roll around the floor in an ecstatic ball, which will probably lead to your arrest.

So what about Ritalin? The drug, a stimulant that helps its users focus, listen, and organize their behavior, may well help discourage ADHD sufferers from committing spur-of-the-moment crimes—if you’re concentrating on the task at hand, you’re much less likely to abandon it when you’re struck by the impulse to go rob a drug dealer.

But it’s also entirely plausible that impulse control makes for better criminals. A jittery, hyperactive thief seems more likely to get caught or make a stupid mistake than one who has his nerves under control. As a user of such medication myself, I can say with confidence that the nefarious plots I conceive while on my meds are much more focused and plausible than the stuff I come up with when unmedicated. If your criminality involves long-term planning—if, for example, you are involved in an elaborate heist that requires you to memorize the blueprints to a museum—then a stimulant might be just the thing you need to succeed.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.