When you think of the term “heroin use,” what kind of image comes to mind? Many people picture dangerous criminals or people prone to violent outbursts. Much of this is due to the portrayal of heroin use on TV shows or in the movies. Do those who use heroin actually turn to violent behavior when they are seeking out drugs or going through withdrawal?

The truth is, yes and no. As with any drug, heroin use increases the risk of violent or dangerous behavior. However, not everyone who uses heroin becomes violent. In fact, violence rates among people who use heroin are lower than in some other types of drugs, such as stimulants like meth and cocaine.

Statistics About Heroin-Induced Violence and Crimes

As a part of the current opioid crisis, heroin use in the United States has skyrocketed. In 2017, approximately 494,000 people over the age of 12 reported using heroin at least once in the past year.

Incarceration for Heroin Use

Many people who end up jailed for drug-related charges committed crimes in order to get money for drugs. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, around 17–18 percent of all inmates in state and federal prisons were in for crimes committed for drug money. Of those crimes, 10–15 percent were violent in nature. Around 12 percent of inmates used heroin regularly, while 4.1 percent were on heroin at the time they committed the offense.

Not everybody who commits a drug-related crime is caught. Among people who reported they were the victims of violent crimes, 19 percent said they believed the offender was under the influence of drugs.

Driving while intoxicated (DWI) is a major risk among people taking heroin. While alcohol and marijuana topped the list of substances used during a DWI offense, 5.7 percent of DWI arrests involved people on heroin.

Violent Behavior Among Heroin Users

Compared to people who use stimulants like methamphetamine (meth), cocaine, or MDMA (ecstasy), people who use heroin are actually less likely to commit violent crimes. When drug-related crimes are violent, those involving heroin are less likely to be fatal than those involving stimulants.

Sometimes, withdrawal symptoms and frustration from difficulty obtaining drugs can lead to domestic violence. This is true for those who use heroin, whose partners report can become angry when coming off of a high from the drug. However, being under the influence of heroin is not associated with an increased risk of domestic violence.

Drug-Seeking Behaviors and Violence

Any drug use comes with an increased chance of violence. With heroin, this violence is not typically due to the mind-altering effects of the drug itself, but rather as a result of drug-seeking behavior. Intense cravings for heroin can cause people to behave in ways they wouldn’t normally.

Financial Problems from Drug Addiction

Over time, with continued use, many people who use heroin develop a tolerance to the drug. This means that they need higher doses of it to achieve the same high as when they first started. Many people with heroin addiction experience money problems because of excessive spending on drugs. When this happens, a person may borrow money from friends and family, and in many cases, steal it. People who are addicted to heroin may also lose their job because of their addiction, making them even more desperate for money.

Once someone on heroin has exhausted other routes of obtaining money to supply themselves with drugs, they may begin participating in violent acts to get money, including robbery. They may also exhibit violent behaviors toward people they know, including friends and family, as a way to get money to buy more heroin. Unfortunately, a side effect of heroin use is impaired cognitive function. This means that people using heroin have a harder time making sound decisions and good choices.

Mental Impact of Heroin Use

Heroin is an opioid, a type of drug that relieves pain and can cause feelings of euphoria. These drugs bind to receptors in the brain, which causes changes in emotions, behaviors and physical feelings. After an intensely pleasurable high, a person taking the drug will often sink into a state of deep relaxation or even sedation. Heroin is also a depressant, so it slows down many of the body’s functions such as the respiratory system. This is why breathing and heart rates may slow down.

Heroin Impairs Judgement

Because heroin has a strong sedative effect on the body, it can severely impair a person’s judgment and mental function. This can have indirect effects on their behavior. For example, driving is dangerous. They may also make poor choices when in a social situation, hurting other people as a result.

Difference in Violence Rates From Other Drug Use

The depressant effects of heroin can actually make a person calmer and less prone to violent outbursts. This is distinct from stimulant drugs such as meth, cocaine or ecstasy. Stimulants increase activity in the brain and nervous system and can cause erratic behavior.

Are Heroin Users Violent During Withdrawal?

Withdrawal from heroin is both physically and mentally painful and can have many unpleasant side effects. For example, a person undergoing heroin withdrawal may experience psychosis. When this happens, the person may lose touch with reality and behave irrationally.

Behaviors exhibited by people on heroin withdrawal include:

  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Aggression

Key Points: Heroin Addicts and Violence

Heroin use can lead to violent behavior, mostly from money and drug-seeking behaviors and during withdrawal. Being under the influence of heroin can cause poor judgment, but does not tend to cause violence itself.

Heroin-related violence or danger may result from:

  • Drug-seeking behavior
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Driving while under the influence of heroin
  • Crime or theft due to drug-related to financial constraints

Heroin use and withdrawal are dangerous. If you or a loved one are suffering from a heroin use disorder, it is best to seek professional help to stop using. Call The Recovery Village today to learn about treatment options for heroin addiction and to discuss a possible treatment plan.


www.CDC.gov. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Heroin Overdose Data.” December 19, 2018. Accessed April 11, 2019.

www.bjs.gov. Bureau of Justice Statistics. “Drugs and Crime Facts.”  Accessed April 11, 2019.

Håkansson, Anders and Jesionowska, Virginia. “Associations between substance use and type of crime in prisoners with substance use problems – a focus on violence and fatal violence.” Subst Abuse Rehabil.2018; 9:1-9.

Gilchrist, Gail; Dennis, Fay; Radcliffe, Polly; Henderson, Juliet; Howard, Louise M.; and Gadd, David. “The interplay between substance use and intimate partner violence perpetration: A meta-ethnography.” Int J Drug Policy.March 2019; 65:8-23.