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RTI Stories

Taking the True Measure of Substance Abuse

"A statistic that startled the country and guided national policy changes"

In the 1970s, the substance-abuse crisis that had caused such national consternation in the previous decade showed no signs of abating. In 1973, RTI released Drug Usage and Arrest Charges, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. This report came to the counterintuitive conclusion that drug users were no more likely to be involved in violent crimes than nondrug users. "Everyone figured that drug abuse and criminal behavior were associated," says Valley Rachal, an RTI economist who worked on the project. "We blew that away. The project also introduced us to substance abuse experts across the country, helping us develop a continuing program in this area, learning the key issues in the field as they emerged."

Two years later Rachal led another eye-opening survey, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, concerning the drinking behavior of U.S. teenagers. "We surveyed 13,000 kids from the seventh to twelfth grades, using a theoretically based questionnaire self-administered in a classroom situation, the typical model then," he says. "We found that nearly one-quarter of high school juniors and seniors were heavy to moderately heavy drinkers, a statistic that startled the country and guided national policy changes. We further determined that adolescents who drank heavily tended to have other problem behaviors, such as doing less well in school."

The alcohol-abuse survey also asked questions about drug use, revealing that 15 percent of high-school students had tried marijuana before the age of 13 and more than half by the age of 18. (A subsequent survey by RTI, conducted a few years later, confirmed these earlier findings.)

RTI also undertook related research into effective forms of treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. In 1975, the National Institute on Drug Abuse contracted with the Institute to conduct and administer the Treatment Outcome Prospective Study. Researchers interviewed 12,000 drug users at 40 clinics nationwide about the effectiveness of their treatment in curtailing drug usage. Subsequent follow-up surveys led to the conclusion that a minimum stay of three months, in a publicly funded drug-abuse treatment program, was a necessary condition to successfully reduce drug use post-treatment. "The study confirmed that treatment was good public policy," Rachal says.