What is the impact of drug use and alcoholism on criminal behavior? The Reagan administration has told the Justice Department it wants to know as it hammers out a national agenda for shoring up the criminal justice system.
James K. Stewart, director of the National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the US attorney general's office, says learning more about drug use and alcohol is a major factor in getting a handle on lawlessness.
Mr. Stewart's advisory panel has been holding hearings across the United States and taking testimony from lawyers, judges, law enforcement personnel, and others about what is most needed to check violent crime in the US.
The panel convened here during meetings of the American Bar Association (ABA) and heard recommendations ranging from changing court procedures in criminal cases to launching community crime-prevention programs (such as neighborhood watches and citizens street patrols) to cracking down harder on drug abuse.
Panel members and others attending sessions here generally agree that there is a direct relationship between drug abuse and crime. They are less sure, however, of the link between alcohol use and lawlessness.
Judge James Duke Cameron, a justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, says, ''When I was a defense attorney, a defendant would often say, 'I was drunk at the time.' I just don't know if there is a relationship (between alcohol use and crime). But I do know about drugs. The user needs money. He becomes a pusher. And he gets thousands by selling.''
Deputy US Attorney General Edward C. Schmults makes even a stronger case. ''Drug trafficking itself may spawn the greatest proportion of crime. One recent study demonstrated that over an 11-year period, some 243 addicts committed about one-half million crimes - to support their habits.
''In fact, half of all jail and prison inmates regularly used drugs before committing their offenses.'' Mr. Schmults cites a recent Rand Corporation study that shows that addicted offenders in California committed nine times as many property crimes as nonaddicted offenders.
This trend is corroborated in a current ABA report on criminal offenders, which quotes a 1980 Abt Associates study on American prisons and jails. Abt shows that while violent crime has decreased some - particularly in the Northeast - this was offset by the increase of property or ''public order'' offenses. And it stressed that the ''majority of public order offenses involved drugs.''
And a new, but not widely distributed, Criminal Justice Research Report on the effect of the ''exclusionary rule'' in California found that among cases rejected because of improper police procedures or legal improprieties, a significant proportion involved drug arrests. ''Over 70 percent of all felony cases rejected because of search and seizure problems in California were drug cases,'' the National Institute of Justice study finds.
During the past year the Reagan administration has launched a major crackdown on drug trafficking. Mr. Schmults points out that prior to January 1982 the FBI had no specific ongoing drug investigations. As of the start of 1983, 1,115 were under way - one-third were joint probes with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
So far there is no major effort to curb alcoholism in connection with crime. Law enforcement officials here seem to agree with Mr. Stewart however, that it is important to learn more about the effects of alcohol on criminal behavior.
One strong hint may have surfaced recently with a Bureau of Justice Statistics report on prisoners and alcohol that indicates ''an alcohol problem of staggering size.'' Based on interviews in 1979 with 1,200 inmates in state prisons, this study shows that nearly one-third admitted to very heavy drinking before breaking the law. In addition, 20 percent said they drank every day in the year before arrest.