One moment...

Blogs / ICMA | blog / Opioid Epidemic Blog Series Part 2: How Your Community Can Assess the Level of Risk for Drug Abuse

Opioid Epidemic Blog Series Part 2: How Your Community Can Assess the Level of Risk for Drug Abuse

Our five-part opioid epidemic blog series will offer communities best practices on applying prevention principles, assessing needs and community readiness, motivating the community to take action, and evaluating the impact of programs implemented. Join us every day this week to learn how communities can implement research-based prevention programs.

Part 2: How Your Community Can Assess the Level of Risk for Drug Abuse

youth, teenager

To assess the level of risk of youth engaging in drug abuse, it is important to:

  • measure the nature and extent of drug abuse patterns and trends;
  • collect data on the risk and protective factors throughout the community;
  • understand the community’s culture and how that culture affects and is affected by drug abuse;
  • consult with community leaders working in drug abuse prevention, treatment, law enforcement, mental health, and related areas;
  • assess community awareness of the problem; and
  • identify existing prevention efforts already under way to address the problem.

Researchers have developed many tools to assess the extent of a community’s drug problem. Most of these tools assess the nature of the problem—what drugs are available and who is abusing them. Some of them assess the extent of abuse by estimating how many people are abusing drugs. Others assess factors associated with abuse, such as juvenile delinquency, school absenteeism, and school dropout rates. Researchers have also developed instruments that assess individual risk status. It is important when beginning the assessment process to collect sufficient information to help local planners target the intervention by population and geographic area.

As an example, the Communities That Care prevention operating system, developed by Hawkins and colleagues at the University of Washington (Hawkins et al. 2002), is based on epidemiological methods. An assessment is conducted to collect data on the distribution of risk and protective factors at the community level. This approach helps local planners identify geographic areas with the highest levels of risk and the lowest levels of protective resources. This analysis tool assists planners in selecting the most effective prevention interventions to address the specific risks of neighborhoods.

Other data sources and measurement instruments (such as questionnaires) that can help in community planning include the following resources.

  • Public access data. Several large national surveys provide data to help local communities understand how their drug problems relate to the national picture. These include the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Monitoring the Future Study, and Youth Behavior Risk Study.
  • Public access questionnaires. The studies listed above and many other federally sponsored data sets make the data collection instruments available for adaptation and use by the public. Communities can conduct local studies using these instruments to collect uniform data that can often be compared with national findings.
  • Archival data. Data from public access files from school systems, health departments, hospital emergency rooms, law enforcement agencies, and drug abuse treatment facilities can be analyzed to identify the nature of the local drug problem and other youth problems.
  • Ethnographic studies. Ethnographic approaches use systematic, observational processes to describe behaviors in natural settings, such as studying the abuse of drugs by youth gangs, and documenting the individual perspectives of those under observation.
  • Other qualitative methods. Other qualitative methods, such as convening focus groups of representatives of drug-abusing subpopulations or key interviews with community officials, can be used to gain a greater understanding of the local drug abuse problem.


As each of these methods has advantages and disadvantages, it is advisable, permitting resources, to use multiple strategies to assess community risk to provide the best information possible.

The Community Epidemiology Work Group (CEWG), another data source pioneered in the early 1970s by NIDA and communities nationwide, is composed of researchers from 21 U.S. cities who collect or use archival data to characterize the nature of the drug problem in their locations. CEWG representatives meet with NIDA biannually to inform the Institute and fellow CEWG members of changing drug trends in their cities. The work group has developed a Guide for Community Epidemiology Surveillance Networks on Drug Abuse to help other communities use this approach to provide up-to-date information on local drug abuse problems.

Using information obtained through these many sources can help community leaders make sound decisions about programs and policies. Analyzing these data before implementing new programs can also help establish a baseline for evaluating results. To be most informative, periodic assessments need to be made routinely.

Join us tomorrow for part three to determine if your community is ready for prevention and don't forget to register for NACo's virtual town hall series on the local response to the opioid crisis.

*Content from this blog post has been extracted from the National Institute on Drug Abuse Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents: A Research-Based Guide for Parents, Educators, and Community Leaders; 2nd Edition.

Posted by