STASH, Vol. 16(2) – Who, what, where, and when? Examining adolescent substance use with routine activity theory

When studying why teenagers use drugs, it is important to consider the environments that allow substance use to occur: How do teens access drugs? Do friends encourage or pressure them to use? How often are they supervised? These questions are characteristic of routine activity theory (RAT), an approach to studying crime that considers the unique circumstances of an incident, rather than just the offender’s motives. This week, as part of our Special Series on Theories of Addiction, STASH reviews a study by Molly Block, Kristin Swartz, and Allen Copenhaver that examined how accessibility to drugs, supervision, and school environment relate to substance use in adolescent students through the lens of RAT.

What is the theory?
RAT was first proposed by Cohen and Felson in 1979 as part of the movement toward understanding crimes as events and opportunities for offenders, rather than considering the offender alone. Since its proposal, RAT has emerged as a popular way to explain crime events such as burglary and juvenile delinquency. RAT states that for a crime to occur, three conditions must be met at the same time and in the same place:
1. There must be a motivated offender.

2. There must be a target that is seen as vulnerable or appealing to the offender.
3. There must not be supervision or guardianship (e.g. no one to witness or intervene).

Though developed to understand criminal offenses, RAT can also be applied to understand a wider array of deviant behavior, like adolescent substance use.

Read this week’s review.