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Posted on March 3rd, 2015

Back to School – Substance Abuse Risk

There has been much debate in this country about the so-called “war on drugs.” Without making this too much of a political tirade on my part, it has essentially been a failed effort. Its consequences leave individuals, families and communities shattered, and the only folks who seem to gain are part of the ever-increasingly private penal system. Mandatory minimums sentence non-violent offenders to lengthy jail and prison terms that further damage their spirit and identity. When they get out, they are often shells of their former selves, and in many cases, unemployable. People who are addicted to drugs are treated no better than those that sell drugs, and our system lets them fall through the cracks as well. Our money is misspent; education, rehabilitation and prevention would serve the greater public far more than incarceration that typically yields recidivism. We spent $15 billion dollars on the war on drugs in 2010 alone, or about $500 per second. Think about how that money could change people’s lives for the better instead of making them into criminals? Okay, I’ll get off my soap box and get to the point.

A map of the various socioeconomic vulnerability factors.

Researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Buffalo engaged in a study to assess the risk of substance abuse in Buffalo, New York. The study’s intent was to showcase how geographical markers can be used to determine areas of elevated risk, thus allowing health care providers better information on how to serve the public. People with alcohol disorders age 12 and older are 7% of the population, while those with illicit drug disorders are nearly 3% nationally. The authors, however, found that there was spatial variation in substance abuse prevalence and type, and their intent was to showcase how geography can play a role in the choice of drug and likelihood of its use. The availability of treatment centers as well as the age of entry into treatment were also key factors on whether or not users would have success in battling their disease. This idea was dubbed the ‘therapeutic landscape’ by earlier researchers to signify the importance of available resources as well as their timeliness. The probability of a patient attending treatment was 65% when centers were between 11 and 25 miles away, and fell to 50% if more than 25 miles from home.

A map of socioeconomic, physical and total risk layers of the treatment assessment model.

There were several variables determined to be socioeconomic vulnerability factors in assessing risk for substance abuse in the study: percent living below poverty line, percentage of female-headed households, unemployment rate and median age. Each parameter was scored according to its perceived effect on treatment outcomes. The only disparity found when using these variables was that women over 30 had better outcomes from treatment than expected.

The authors found that the highest risk for negative outcomes occurred in areas with high-risk socioeconomic and physical environment landscapes.  High-risk physical landscapes included high density of alcohol outlets (e.g. bars, liquor stores) and low density of treatment centers. In sum, the researchers recommend that future research should look at the link between high-risk areas and relapse rates. Future city planning should also include spatial analysis of alcohol outlet distribution that could encourage excessive use as well as providing treatment centers through community partnerships in underserved areas. By partnering with community members and organizations to combat excessive alcohol and drug use through treatment and educational outlets, it could result in lower crime rates, higher property values and more people with stable careers who can in turn stimulate the economy through taxes and purchasing power.

Justin Harmon
Staff Writer

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