Drug Free Communities: Preventing Teen Substance Use
By Rebecca A. Clay
Local problems demand local solutions. That’s the basic philosophy behind the Drug Free Communities Support program, which harnesses the power of community coalitions to reduce and ultimately prevent substance use among young people.
Established under the Drug Free Communities Act of 1997, the Drug Free Communities Support program now supports 769 community coalitions across the country. (See 2009 grant opportunity.)
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) oversees the program, while SAMHSA’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) manages the grants administration. A recent evaluation suggests that the program is successful. (See Promising Results for details.)
“The partnership between ONDCP and SAMHSA has been key,” said CSAP Director Frances M. Harding, explaining that working together at the Federal level offers grantees a model of the power of collaboration. “Changing community norms isn’t going to happen without all members of the community coming together in partnerships of their own.”
Fortunately, communities coming together is exactly what’s happening. There are now coalitions in every state, plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and Palau.
The program gives community organizations grants of up to $625,000 over 5 years to expand citizen participation in drug abuse prevention activities in their own communities. The goals are twofold: to establish and strengthen community coalitions and to reduce substance use among youth and adults.
To achieve those goals, the coalitions focus on changing community norms, explained Ms. Harding. “We’re trying to change the environment for young people, so they no longer have to grow up in environments where alcohol and drugs are tolerated,” she said.
This “environmental” approach can be extremely effective, said Michael J. Koscinski, M.S., M.S.W., a Drug Free Communities project officer at CSAP, pointing to national environmental changes over the years.
“Just look what happened when we changed the drinking age from 18 back to 21—the number of deaths averted was incredible,” said Mr. Koscinski. The same thing is happening with cigarette smoking, he said, noting that he grew up in an era when both teachers and students were allowed to smoke at school. “When you start banning smoking on trains, in hospitals, in restaurants, the level of addiction to cigarettes goes down and the number of new cases of cancer goes down as well.”
The Drug Free Communities coalitions strive to bring about similar changes on a local level, working to reduce risk factors and increase protective factors. Each community may focus on different factors depending on the local situation, said Mr. Koscinski.
In the urban east, for instance, coalitions might target liquor stores that fail to check young people’s IDs. They might try a variety of tactics, explained Mr. Koscinski. If they wanted to be confrontational, for example, they could have a young-looking police officer try to buy alcohol and then publicize names of stores that don’t comply.
If they wanted to use positive reinforcement, they could reward stores that pledge to check IDs by publicizing those that agree to follow the law. Or they could take a regulatory approach, such as making IDs for people under 21 easier to recognize at a glance or requiring keg registration to help determine liability if a keg party gets out of hand.
In rural areas out west, said Mr. Koscinski, coalitions may have completely different problems and solutions. “The environmental approach there might be to go to ranchers and farmers and ask them to keep a lookout for meth labs or anything suspicious going on on their property,” he said.
Many coalitions around the country are now using social norms marketing strategies, which use social norms theory to correct misperceived social norms around drinking and drug use. Adolescents have a great desire to want to “fit in,” and this need puts kids at risk for engaging in behavior based on a potential misperception of what is “normal.”
Of course, coalitions typically rely on multiple strategies simultaneously. (See Maryland Grantee’s Story.)
No matter what strategies coalitions use, they have one thing in common: the involvement of just about everyone in the community.
Site Map — January/February 2009