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.
Coalitions must include representatives from almost a dozen sectors: youth, parents, the business community, media, schools, youth-serving organizations, law enforcement agencies, religious or fraternal organizations, civic and volunteer groups, health care professionals, and state, local, or tribal governmental agencies with expertise in the substance abuse field.
The coalitions are like flocks of geese, said Mr. Koscinski. “If an individual goose tried to fly from the outer reaches of Canada to South America, it would never make it,” he explained. “But when geese come together and fly in formation, they can fly farther.” Similarly, he said, police working alone aren’t enough. When they join forces with kids, parents, schools, and others, they can build on each other’s strengths and make an impact.
Young people themselves play a critical role in the program, emphasized Mr. Koscinski. “Kids are part of both the problem and the solution,” he said, noting that young people know what will work best to keep their peers away from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.
Getting young people involved also is a protective factor in itself for both those involved and those who see that young person as a role model, he added. “To have kids at the table with the school board president, the police chief, and all the other players in a community gives them leadership opportunities,” he said. “They don’t have to be part of a norm that says drug and alcohol use is okay.”
The National Community Anti-Drug Coalition Institute provides training and technical assistance to grantees. Founded in 2002, the institute is part of the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, a nonprofit organization based in Alexandria, VA. Its work is to strengthen the capacity of community coalitions.
In addition, the Drug Free Communities Mentoring program is preparing a new generation of coalitions.
Currently, 31 well-established Drug Free Communities grantees are serving as mentors to developing or newly formed coalitions that have not yet received a Drug Free Communities grant. “We’re building a critical mass of these coalitions,” said Mr. Koscinski.
So far, the coalition approach appears to be working quite well.
An ONDCP-funded interim evaluation shows that the program is effective in preventing substance use and abuse among teens. The evaluation compared data from Drug Free Communities grantees to national data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, which includes a national school-based survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), plus surveys conducted by state, territorial, tribal, and local education and health agencies.
According to the analysis, the number of high school students who report having used alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana in the last month is significantly lower in coalition communities than the national average.
The current use rates in Drug Free Communities areas declined between 2006 and 2007. And while drug use among teens has been declining across the Nation as a whole, it’s dropping faster in communities with Drug Free Community coalitions.
The evaluation included additional findings:
- Alcohol use. Average youth alcohol use in coalition communities is more than 23 percent lower than the national average.
- Tobacco use. Annual tobacco use is 10 percent lower in coalition communities than the national average.
- Marijuana use. Current marijuana use among high schoolers in coalition communities is almost 10 percent lower than the reported national average.
“At a glance, you can see that these numbers show the effectiveness of the Drug Free Communities program. Each community’s efforts are a step in the right direction,” said Ms. Harding.
For more information, visit the Drug Free Communities Web site.