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RTI Stories

Substance Abuse Research at RTI

How the 1960s drug crisis led to an important series of government contracts

In the latter part of the 1960s, recreational drug use emerged as a major national issue - and as with other such issues, RTI leaped into the fray, drawing on the multidisciplinary skills of its staff to study substance abuse treatment, cost, policy, epidemiology, and chemistry. Among the Institute's earliest projects was a contract to evaluate drug and alcohol use among recent arrestees; another project culminated in the publication of Drug Abuse Treatment: A National Study of Effectiveness, a book positing that treatment was successful in reducing drug abuse rates and the demand for illegal drugs. (Of the book's six coauthors, five were from RTI, including principal author Robert L. Hubbard.)

Chemist Monroe Wall's laboratory also undertook important drug research, including developing the first chemical profile of marijuana. Subsequently, RTI researchers evaluated marijuana's efficacy in relieving the nausea caused by cancer chemotherapy and treating patients afflicted with glaucoma, a major cause of blindness. Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, both studies' conclusions were favorable.

The pioneering research undertaken by Wall's laboratory pointed the way toward more sensitive methods for detecting drugs in human tissue. RTI's extremely advanced (and expensive) mass spectrometer played a major role in this regard, as did related scientific techniques like chromatography and radioimmunoassay. In later years, the lab intensively studied the chemistry, pharmacology, and biochemical mechanisms of illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, and LSD, while other research units tackled issues like drug usage rates and treatment outcomes–efforts that profoundly affected public policy.

Over the years, RTI's substance abuse research has become ever more ambitious and wide ranging. Starting in 1988, for example, the Institute conducted a nationwide survey of illicit drug, tobacco, alcohol, and nonmedical prescription drug use in the United States–the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Public Health Service, NSDUH is the primary source of data on substance use and abuse for government agencies, private organizations, researchers, and public policymakers, and its results are always illuminating.